SCOTLAND’S islands are to finally gain control over their surrounding seabed along with access to millions of pounds the Crown Estate extracts from them every year.
The breakthrough, announced in the report of the Smith Commission into further devolution of the powers of the Scottish Parliament, was hailed as a “major step forward” by politicians in Shetland.
The report also proposes that, where appropriate, a Scottish minister should lead the delegation to European on issues such as fisheries.
Other recommendations relevant to island life are the devolution of air passenger duty, which the Scottish government already plans to abolish.
Nationally the Smith Commission is proposing to devolve powers over setting income tax and parts of the welfare benefit system.
Smith also said that the parliament should be given powers to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote.
The Smith Commission was set up following the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott was one of the ten politicians (two from each of the five parties) who served on the commission.
He said: “I have worked all my political life to ensure the seabed is placed under local control. Shetland pays £900,000 a year to the Crown Estate. For what?
“In future, we can make the decisions on what that revenue can be used for.
“Shetlanders have a very strong historical and practical sense of how important this change could be.
“I also believe that new arrangements for European negotiations can help the local fishing industry.
“There is a logic in the Scottish fisheries minister leading the UK delegation at the annual EU negotiations when key whitefish quotas are decided. I am pleased that can now happen.”
Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson described the report as an “important milestone” that should deliver “tangible benefits” to the three island communities involved in the Our Islands Our Future initiative.
He said that according to his calculations, companies and organisations in Shetland were paying nearer £2 million to the Crown Estate annually.
These funds could now be administered alongside marine planning and licensing, and be used to maintain and repair piers, as well as building houses in rural areas where most of the aquaculture industry is located.
He added that devolution had a renewed momentum after it had stalled for a time following the establishment of the Scottish parliament.
“There appears to be a growing demand nationally to see the decisions that affect people locally to be taken locally,” he said.
“I think this is now an unstoppable change in politics in Scotland now, and it is definitely a change to the better.
“Devolution from the centre would not stop with the council, we would like to see devolution of powers and responsibilities right to the communities.”
The report by Lord Smith was also welcomed by Danus Skene, the vice convener of the local SNP branch.
He said: “The islands are in a better place for two specific reasons, one is the absolute commitment to devolve Crown Estate control to the islands, and the second is the assurance about devolved administration access to UK representation to Europe.
“That means that the kind of nonsense that happened last month where the Scottish minister responsible for fisheries was effectively excluded and not consulted in a matter of representation by the UK as a member state in European fisheries negotiations.”
Meanwhile the chairman of the Yes Shetland campaign, Brian Nugent, said the proposals were “well short of Devo Max, which is what the Vow during the referendum campaign suggested”.
“I suppose it was never going to go far enough for Yes voters, but it is clear that Westminster is still in charge,” he added.
Northern isles MP and Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael said the Smith Commission had delivered an historic cross party agreement on devolution in just two months.
“The people of Scotland voted on the 18 September to keep the best of both worlds – a strengthened Scottish parliament within a stronger and more stable United Kingdom.
“The vow made by the party leaders during the referendum recognised that this would require substantial constitutional change.
“For the northern isles in particular there is much to look forward to here. Control of the Crown Estate Commission and, through it, the seabed, will be devolved to the Scottish parliament and from there on to the isles.
“We have made some progress on this in the past few years but I have always regarded it as unfinished business.
“That can now change and we have the opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the country what can be done by a determined and creative local community given direct control of its essential assets.
“The referendum left Scotland a divided nation. I hope that this agreement today will allow us to heal these divisions and to work together not as part of the 45 per cent or the 55 per cent but rather in the interests of 100 per cent of all Scotland,” he said.
The UK government has until 25 January 2015 to publish draft legislation on the basis of Lord Smith’s recommendations.
His 28-page report can be found here.
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