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LIVE: Our Islands, Our Future meeting

JOIN us from 7pm tonight for live blog coverage of a public meeting about the Our Islands Our Future campaign seeking more powers for Scotland’s islands.

Chairing the meeting at Mareel in Lerwick will be Ian Kinniburgh, with an all-male panel featuring Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson, convener Malcolm Bell and councillors Peter Campbell, Alastair Cooper, Davie Sandison, George Smith and Michael Stout. They will be joined by Western Isles Council leader Angus Campbell.

The campaign is aiming to take advantage of the constitutional state of flux created by this September’s referendum on Scottish independence – with the aim of securing more devolution irrespective of that poll’s outcome.

9.11pm: And with that, Kinniburgh wraps up the two-hour meeting to a polite round of applause.

9.10pm: Kinniburgh asks the panel what key difference they’d like OIOF to have made to an individual in the community over the next 4-5 years.

Many of the answers are as you might expect: legislation to retain distinct island councils; retaining and growing the population; creating a level playing field so young people can “do the same kind of work on a croft in Fetlar that they could if they were living in central London” (Davie Sandison); control over Crown Estate revenues, and ensuring community benefit from renewables.

Alastair Cooper also has ambitious plans on the telecoms front. He wants not just high speed broadband, but also has a vision of receiving 4G mobile phone coverage in the middle of the Lang Kames.

Perhaps less predictable is George Smith’s tongue-in-cheek vision of a Shetland football team slugging it out against “old adversaries” Faroe and Gibraltar in the European Championships…

9.02pm: Outgoing Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons wants to know if there are any services the three island councils could club together and provide jointly to save money?

Robinson “certainly wouldn’t rule that out”. Bell would prefer to see the council and health board work better together within Shetland. “We do have to find smarter ways of delivering more bang for less buck,” he says, but the prospect of sharing services with other councils is more limited due to the geography.

9pm: Panel member Michael Stout says it has been very difficult, amid lots of behind-closed-doors talks at high levels of government, to engage with people without being able to provide the nitty-gritty details of what’s being discussed. 

“There is a danger in a number of middle-aged men sitting here – I’m not even going to go near the gender issue – so we’re aware of that and trying to do something about that.”

8.57pm: George Smith says it’s important to find ways of “meaningfully engaging” with people not only on OIOF but a “whole heap of things” at a time of making difficult decisions about council services.

8.54pm: Kinniburgh throws in a question from the OIOF Twitter feed. How are young people being involved in this – after all they are the islands’ future?

Robinson: this is an open event and invitations have gone out widely, including on social media, to try and engage with the younger generation. It’s important that we get that voice into the campaign as well. He admits it’s a struggle to see many young faces among an overwhelmingly middle-aged audience.

Bell says more than 30 young folk were present at a Shetland Youth Voice meeting recently where OIOF was discussed. He and MSP Tavish Scott also visited secondary schools to hold Q&A sessions with fourth year pupils, though he accepted that the council still needed to find better ways of engaging with young people.

8.50pm: Panel member Davie Sandison agrees with Goodlad that there is a need to “sharpen the focus” of the campaign.

Bell says part of the reason for gauging whether there’s a public appetite to push for further powers was to hold meetings like this one. He said the OIOF platform had to balance ambition against ensuring the three councils remained unified as that gave them greater leverage in lobbying central government.

8.47pm: John Goodlad, a former Orkney & Shetland Movement activist, generally applauds the “tremendous” campaign”. But it is “lacking in ambition” – this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity, so never ever shy back from what might appear to be an unrealistic aspiration”.

Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles are exceptions – other European islands have legislative autonomy. There’s nothing in OIOF about that, he notes.

Goodlad offers the campaign some advice: “Never, ever underestimate how folk in Scotland and the UK just don’t get it”. He relates the lengths Shetland and Orkney had to go to in order to get separate MSPs when the Scottish Parliament was being created in the late 1990s. Had the islands not fought their corner the Northern Isles would be sharing an MSP, he says.

8.41pm: Peter Campbell says that, despite various hiccups, councils are “effective administrative units” and current thinking supports retaining the three island authorities as independent entities. What is important is ensuring that the benefits of the ZCC Act are retained, and provide the basis to build future benefits for the community.

8.39pm: Bell – the danger of councils being amalgamated is a real prospect, and it is vital Shetland retains its own council. He points out the UK has the fewest number of councils, proportionally, anywhere in the EU and if anything it actually needs more, not less, local authorities.

8.36pm: Angus Campbell says it is “morally wrong” for the islands not to be connected to the UK National Grid. He points to potential payments of £25 million a year flowing into the Western Isles if various renewables projects go ahead.

8.33pm: Gary Robinson says a “key plank” of OIOF is gaining recognition that the three islands’ councils are here to say, he assures Nickerson.

“We think that’s absolutely critical and we’d be worried if anything came to pass that didn’t have the three – the logistics are challenging to say the least, and if you speak to councillors in remote parts of the Highlands, the big unitary authority has a big impact on places like Caithness. It could only be a negative thing for the islands if we were to be amalgamated in a way similar to that.”

8.29pm: Former SIC councillor Rick Nickerson wants to know how strong commitments from government are about ensuring the islands get community benefit payments from renewables.

On a different note, various political parties have toyed with cutting the number of Scottish local authorities from 32 to 18. Nickerson hopes OIOF will push for constitutional guarantee that the three island councils will remain in place and not end up being merged with Highland or Aberdeenshire.

8.25pm: Cooper says it is important to approach revenue-raising with care, because there is a risk it can be used to reduce funding from central government.

With Sullom Voe’s terminal, the land was sold to the charitable trust to ensure rental income from the oil industry stayed within Shetland.

“You can’t just go out and generate income,” he says. “You have to find a new mechanism of keeping it on the islands.”

8.22pm: Robinson says the islands are all too aware of the risks of hosting the oil industry – having seen the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and considering the impact a similar incident might have on Shetland’s £300 million-plus seafood industry.

Bell – along with providing services it is right that Shetland takes at least some of the responsibility for raising income. Council tax, around 7-8 per cent of SIC income, has been frozen since 2007. Non-domestic rates are pooled centrally, and the current SNP government has “centralised like no other” on police, fire, water and sewage.

8.16pm: Local SNP activist Danus Skene says OIOF, which he supports, does not include in its shopping list an appeal for the right to raise more of its own income. That could take the form of a levy on oil throughput, previously used to create Shetland Charitable Trust, or a levy on renewables, or some form of local income tax, Skene suggests.

8.12pm: Audience member Dorothy Harcus – asks whether the three island authorities are “a nuisance and an embarrassment” to any government.

Robinson doesn’t think so. “I don’t think we’re an embarrassment to anybody.” In Shetland’s case, he believes it contributes more to national government than it gets back by around £64 million.

Panellist Alastair Cooper says the islands probably are a nuisance, but now feature much more in a national context than was the case in the 1960s. 

8.08pm: Inkster says that by going about it “incrementally”, the danger is that all of the oil will be gone and it will be too late to obtain any benefits.

8.05pm: Alastair Cooper says it is only in the very recent past that Denmark devolved seabed rights to the Faroese after islanders insisted there would be no oil and gas exploration until that happened.

But the likelihood of getting oil and gas rights passed back to Shetland are “pretty slim”, he says, and it’s more important to ensure  the islands remain a land “hub” for North Sea oil and gas.

The eight strong panel, including western isles leader Alistair Campbell (second from left), being questioned by local independence campaigner Ali Inkster - Photo: Hans J Marter/ShetNews
8.02pm: Panel member Michael Stout – at the Kirkwall conference last autumn, it emerged that the Scottish islands were unusual in not getting special treatment, for example, at Brussels. 

George Smith understands Inskter’s frustrations, but this is a “starting point”. He has encountered those in Shetland who didn’t even see any need to engage with governments and bodies outside of Shetland. 

8.00pm: Robinson says he does not feel Shetland Islands Council, a body created and sustained by acts of the UK and Scottish parliaments, is the body that should go out and claim wholesale independence on an “It’s Wir Oil” platform. Nor was OIOF ever about “picking up where the Shetland Movement left off”.

He points out that the Aland Islands are now on their fourth act of autonomy, it has been an incremental process and that is more likely to be successful than “making a whole lot of demands” and striking out alone.

7.56pm: Alistair Inskter from Burra, who wrote on these pages at the weekend about seeking much greater independence, says Our Islands Our Futre is “not asking for very much” and wants to know why it isn’t going further.

Bell responds that there had to be compromises to ensure unity between the three authorities.

Peter Campbell says the SIC has 22 independent councillors, each of whom who stood on different manifestos, and very few stood on a ticket of maximum autonomy. What has been adopted is “practical” and “pragmatic” and will achieve more than a “crash, bang, wallop approach”.

7.50pm: Geordie Pottinger from Burra says talks will continue beyond the September referendum, and wants to see guarantees that future governments, whether at Westminster or Holyrood, cannot “just willy-nilly amend what you’ve managed to achieve”.

Robinson and Campbell are broadly in agreement, and point to an “islands desk” already having been created in the Scottish secretary of state’s office.

Panel member George Smith says there have been commitments from his party, Scottish Labour, in its devolution commission – setting a bar for the other parties to match this summer. 

SIC convener Malcolm Bell is wary of being bribed to vote for “jam tomorrow” by both sides in the referendum debate. That is immaterial, he says, and any offers must be tied down and protected in the future.

7.46pm: Kinniburgh says it is “remarkable” and a “fairly considerable achievement” for a collective community of more than 70,000 folk to get their voice heard by government. Now it’s time for questions from the audience.

7.44pm: Response to Our Islands Our Future has been “overwhelmingly positive” and the level of access to government officials and ministers has been “unprecedented” in Campbell’s 14 years in local government. 

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to establish the place of the islands in this country, and we would not be forgiven if we missed this opportunity,” is the combined voice with which the three islands speak.

Campbell talks of how he, Robinson and Heddle are “very different characters” who have become good friends while working closely together in the past 10 months. 

Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson presenting the Our Islands, Our Future case - Photo: Hans J Marter
7.42pm: He wants the Western Isles to use income from the Crown Estate and community benefit from renewables to improve life for islanders.

Campbell is unhappy that ferry operator CalMac does not base its operations in the community it serves, and wants that to change.

7.40pm: Campbell outlines the Western Isles’ demographic imbalance: it is facing a falling working population and declining school rolls. While unemployment is low, that is because young people are leaving to find work rather than because of the plentiful availaiblity of jobs.

It is, however, increasing tourism. Other industries include a “reinvigorated” Harris Tweed industry, aquaculture and renewables.

7.35pm: Now it’s Angus Campbell’s turn to offer a Western Isles perspective. He talks of the “unity” surrounding the Our Islands Our Future campaign.

Its 26,000 population is “not only on the periphery of the UK, but on the periphery of the whole of Europe” and its external transport links are “hugely important” to its people’s wellbeing. He talks of the similar challenges faced by all three islands.

7.30pm: What does it all mean for Shetland? More decisions that affect people locally being taken locally. “We want to have more influence over economic development decisions that affect our own islands,” says Robinson. 

Local government is in for a tough time – Shetland has been sheltered from spending cuts thanks to the impending referendum, but beyond that all predictions are that there will be further cuts in grants from central government. “If government supports the islands we can do more for ourselves, and more in turn to support the nation as a whole,” he concludes. 

7.27pm: Further meetings are lined up – by the summer a Scottish Government prospectus and a UK Government concordat should be on the table. They will then be taken back to the respective councils.

7.25pm: A series of meetings have taken place with government ministers and civil servants in London and Edinburgh over the past six months or so. Robinson points to “growing cross-party support for what we’re trying to do”. Key areas include:

* The Crown Estate: much more of the income derived from the seas around the islands should come back into the islands. That could be as much as 80 per cent of income up to a 12-mile limit, with the remaining 20 per cent returning to the UK Treasury. Outwith that limit it would be the opposite, a 20-80 split.

* Oil & gas: community benefit. In terms of proposed onshore “fracking”, community benefit is very quickly offered. With a downturn in income from disturbance payments which finished in 2000, Robinson feels Shetland isn’t getting the benefit it once had.

* State aid: the SIC had difficulties and Robinson believes there is a case for increasing the minimum amount of intervention that can be made without skewing markets. A recent report from HIE recognised that the cost of living and doing business is more expensive, and that makes a good case for greater intervention.

7.20pm: The campaign was launched on 17 June last year. Robinson felt things got off to “the best possible start”, and after the launch the campaign went straight to Europe and got support from the EU’s islands commission. That was followed by Alex Salmond’s grandly-titled “Lerwick Declaration” following a Scottish cabinet meeting last summer.

A conference in Kirkwall last autumn was addressed by Jean Didier Hache, who pointed out that seven of the EU’s islands regions had legislative autonomy. “The Scottish Islands are the exception”, he said.

7.17pm: The councils want legislative recognition of local government in each island group as “an integral tier” of the country’s democratic structure – to ensure future governments cannot do away with island authorities.

Robinson says islands are often expected to fit a “one size fits all” approach to new laws and rules. A recent example is welfare reform, where the so-called bedroom tax “cut against the housing policy that has existed in the three island groups for many years” where councils have built family homes. They were then left hard pressed to find smaller houses for people to downsize and avoid paying the bedroom tax.

The islands also want their relationship with Europe through better representation and access to funding.

7.14pm: Robinson says the Montgomery Committee in April 1984 looked into local government in the islands and opportunities to extend powers to the islands, a “profund statement that pretty much sums up what we’re trying to do here”. It’s almost 30 years to the day since the report was published and very little happened. It took two years even to be debated in the House of Commons and “we think it’s right and proper that it’s revisited”.

7.10pm: SIC leader Gary Robinson is first to take to the podium. He welcomes those at Mareel, and those watching a live broadcast. The story so far: it’s only a little more than a year since the three leaders, in a hotel in Inverness following a meeting, sat down to speak about the things the three island councils could collectively work on. “We recognised that there was an opportunity presented by the referendum for the islands to seek greater powers and more autonomy,” he says.

7pm: The car park outside Mareel might be full, but it seems to be mainly folk off to see a film – an audience of around 30 people has gathered in the Mareel auditorium to hear Ian Kinniburgh introduce the eight panellists. He says discussion is principally about the work being done by the Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils  – not about encourgaing people to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in September.

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