SCOTLAND’S islands are being invited to “set the agenda” for greater powers to be devolved by Westminster in the event of the country voting No in the independence referendum next month.
On Friday Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael launched the UK government’s Framework for the Islands in Stornoway, promising that the three island authorities would be placed “at the heart of government”.
Shetland, Orkney and the western isles would have a dedicated desk in the Scotland Office in London, along with special representation in Brussels, to “island proof” them against damaging legislation.
However Westminster’s offer has failed to match the Scottish government’s promise to hand over 100 per cent of net revenue from the seabed – amounting to millions of pounds – should Scotland vote Yes to independence on 18 September.
The document was hailed as a landmark for the three island council’s award-winning Our Islands Our Future campaign.
Carmichael said: “(The framework) builds on a great deal of good work in the past and will strengthen the voice of our islands at the heart of government.
“It will mean their unique needs are considered across all UK government activity and legislation, tailoring our approach to ensure islands issues continue to get the attention they require.”
However the 11-page document was swiftly dismissed by SNP highlands and islands list MSP Mike Mackenzie as falling “well short” of the islands’ aspirations for devolving control of the seabed.
He said: “The UK government’s offer today is nothing more than a hastily thrown together attempt to distract from their failure to match the Scottish government’s commitment on the Crown Estate.
“A Yes vote is our opportunity to guarantee more powers for our islands and to see the wealth from our seabed accrue to the islands rather than central government.”
Aside from the seabed issue there is little to separate what is on offer from the two administrations.
In June the Scottish government’s 80-page Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities promised to introduce an Island Act that would “island proof” legislation before it was passed.
It also promised to:
• create a minister for the islands to represent their interests in government whoever was in power in Holyrood;
• to ensure islands were represented on a new strategic energy committee; and
• give the islands’ a stronger voice in Europe.
On Friday the UK government offered a similar “island proofing”, promising:
• a dedicated desk officer in the Scotland Office and greater representation in Europe;
• an islands working group to meet thrice yearly;
• an annual summit with the Scottish secretary, with an agenda set by the three island councils;
• a business representative on the Scotland Office’s Scottish Business Board; and
• a representative on the PILOT forum where the UK government meets the oil and gas industry.
The framework emphasised the UK government’s existing commitments on supporting renewables, building an interconnector, tackling fuel poverty, extending transport subsidies and improving delivery charges, broadband and mobile signals – all commitments it shares with the Scottish government.
It also promised to consider a request for Island Innovation Zones to be created to attract inward investment and to support local businesses.
On the Crown Estate, the framework lists measures to improve its accountability and engagement with the island authorities, but recognises “these measures alone do not meet the islands council’s aspirations on devolution of the Crown Estate”.
On Friday Carmichael said he hoped the framework created “a mechanism for improving engagement with the Crown Estate” that would give island councils greater control of the reform agenda.
He said that he personally wanted control of the seabed to be handed over to councils, but the Crown Estate still viewed it as a strategic national resource.
Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson admitted the Crown Estate was one area where the framework did not “go as far as we would like”, but believed reform could still be explored in the event of a No vote.
“There are still very good reasons why local authorities should have control of the seabed and be able to use the benefits of the seabed to support local communities,” he said.
Robinson welcomed the framework’s promise to “island proof” legislation as “hugely significant”, with a council employee sitting in the Scotland Office, greater representation in Europe and a seat “at the top table on oil and gas”.
Western Isles Council leader Angus Campbell said councils could use the framework to hold governments to account.
“What we have here is a platform for taking forward a lot of issues,” he said.
“I am confident the island groups are much stronger now than we were before the launch of Our Islands Our Future. It has been very difficult at times but I think we genuinely have come to a good place.”
Orkney Islands Council convener Steven Heddle said there was no “beauty contest” between the two government documents, but he viewed both responses with “quiet satisfaction”.
Carmichael insisted that the islands’ control of the reform agenda had been “hard wired” into the framework, and there would be “political consequences” for any government that failed to honour its pledges.
The council leaders added that Scottish Labour had also promised to match the offer of a desk in the Scotland Office in the event of them coming to power after a No vote.
Robinson said that it would now be up to the island authorities to make sure the pledges made by both governments did not “disappear into a black hole”, as happened to similar recommendations in the 1984 Montgomery Report to devolve more powers to the islands.
“In spite of that report and since the advent of the Scottish Parliament, powers have been sucked in from local to central government,” he said.
“Montgomery suffered from a lack of political will, but on this occasion three island authorities have come together, lobbied government and been proactive, which gives us a much better chance of success.”
Meanwhile Scottish local government minister Derek Mackay said that only independence would bring true benefits to Scotland’s islands with an Islands Act and a minister for island communities.
Independence would see the islands’ unique needs recognised in a written constitution, with income from the seabed being handed to local councils to administer and spend as they wished, he said.
“Our islands have huge potential in energy, tourism and life sciences, and we are determined to work with them to unleash that potential with the powers of independence, and honour the principles of subsidiarity and local decision-making that are at the heart of the Lerwick Declaration.”