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SIC: government must ‘island proof’ its policies

SHETLAND Islands Council has outlined a plethora of areas where it feels governments must pay more heed to the unique challenges faced by remote island communities when drawing up new policies and legislation.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the full council, members unanimously approved a clear and concise 13-page response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on a future Islands Bill – the SNP’s reaction to the Our Islands Our Future (OIOF) campaign.

Councillors heard that the links forged through OIOF were already reaping rewards in ensuring a much more open and frank exchange with Transport Scotland over the future of ferry links within and outwith Shetland.

The response identifies numerous areas where the isles’ geography, climate and dispersed population mean nationwide schemes to tackle issues such as fuel poverty often flounder when applied to remote island communities.

SIC environment and transport committee chairman Michael Stout said the Islands Bill – likely to be drawn up following next May’s Holyrood elections – represented an opportunity which could be “fundamentally radical” in determining the isles’ future.

Veteran Shetland West member Frank Robertson said the islands bill was much more far-reaching than the 1984 Montgomery Commission, which also examined priorities for Scotland’s islands. 

“This is an incredible opportunity at this time,” he said. “We have a political awareness of what is happening in the isles which has never been to this extent before, and the opportunity to be able to influence an islands bill that will go towards creating powers that will enable Shetland to deal with its both social and financial aspects in the future – a phenomenal opportunity.”

He added that he hope the council’s response would be a “catalyst” for more responses from within the community.

Robertson was among several councillors who praised senior SIC official Peter Peterson for an “extremely well put together piece of work” and for establishing an “absolutely excellent” relationship with the Scottish Government.

The response – to be submitted by a 23 December deadline – outlines the council’s support for “island proofing” of legislation so that when policies are being developed any “unintended negative consequences” are identified at an early stage.

While many of the challenges Shetland faces are shared by remote and rural parts of Scotland’s mainland, the islands are generally “at the extreme end of public service delivery”, the council’s response points out.

Also highlighted is the cost of living, typically between 10 and 40 per cent higher than elsewhere in the UK.

For instance, research suggests the average weekly fuel bill for a single adult of working age in a rural English town was £12.36 compared to £22.99 in a town such as Lerwick and £35.13 in more remote isles settlements.

The cost of travelling to and from the mainland is also emphasised – with the point being made that Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) being introduced for other islands has “widened the differential” compared to Shetland.

One positive example of “island proofing” is the funding given to the Shetland rugby team by the Scottish Rugby Union to help with travel costs to the mainland, while visiting teams are also given assistance in making the trip north.

With some powers over welfare being devolved to the Scottish Parliament, there have also been suggestions that an “islands supplement” could be added for those receiving state benefits.

The response points out that a single person on income support only receives funding to cover 30 per cent of what would be required “to achieve an acceptable standard of living”.

National funding schemes and policies continue to be applied in Shetland that do not fit the isles’ circumstances, often resulting in “more expensive solutions having to be found and the council having to absorb any additional costs through already hard-pressed revenue budgets”.

One such example, on which SIC education official Audrey Edwards recently gave evidence at Holyrood, is the requirement for a head teaching qualification which “fails to take account of the realities of teaching in small island settings” when pupil rolls vary from one in Skerries to over 900 at the Anderson High School.

Other issues where Shetland’s distinctive geography and population are not always recognised include the substantially higher construction cost for major infrastructure projects, crofting legislation and waste recycling.

Plans are already afoot to devolve control of the management and income from the seabed around the islands, currently controlled by the Crown Estate, to Shetland.

The response reminds the SNP administration of former first minister Alex Salmond’s pledge to support more local decision-making during a cabinet visit to Lerwick back in July 2013.

The SIC views the Islands Bill as being “the opportunity to put in place new powers and ways of working that would give real meaning to the Lerwick Declaration”.

It also suggests that the SIC’s democratic mandate and accountability to the people of Shetland and its “administrative capability to deliver services” make it an ideal body as and when the government sees fit to devolve more powers.

SIC chief executive Mark Boden said it was a “pretty unique” event and a “considerable achievement” for this council. “Very few councils ever get to consider an act of parliament being proposed due to their work and their lobbying,” he noted.

You can read the SIC’s response in full here.

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