LEGISLATION that will “empower” Scotland’s island communities is to be brought forward in the next 12 months, islands minister Humza Yousaf has announced.
Speaking on a visit to the Western Isles on Tuesday, Yousaf said island communities made a “significant contribution” to Scotland both economically and culturally.
It comes in the wake of lobbying by Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles through their Our Islands Our Future campaign over the past three years.
In 2013 the then First Minister Alex Salmond proclaimed in his “Lerwick declaration” that the islands would be able to enjoy greater autonomy.
It is unclear precisely what the islands bill will mean in policy terms at this stage, but Shetland Islands Council has welcomed the latest development.
Political leader Gary Robinson said he was pleased that the government had “made the islands bill a priority in putting it into the first year for the programme for government”.
“I think that’s very significant,” he said, “and given the work that we’ve done and the consultation that was had, all of that is still fresh in folk’s minds.
“I’m really pleased and hope we can move forward quite quickly to getting the bill passed into legislation.”
On Tuesday, Yousaf said: “We have placed the aspirations and needs of our island communities at the centre of our empowerment agenda.
“Drawing on the work of both the island areas ministerial working group and the consultation findings, the bill will provide lasting benefits for all our island communities for generations to come.
“I believe that this demonstrates our strong and continued support for our island communities and our desire to deliver quickly on the election promises set out in our manifesto.”
Robinson said “island proofing” of nationwide policies was a major part of the bill, because “recent experience has shown we do need to ensure legislation fits in the islands’ context and isn’t just suitable for Edinburgh or Glasgow”.
Other issues that cropped up during the consultation included whether council representation might be changed so that, for example, the North Isles are no longer “lumped into” one multi-member ward.
That could potentially allow the likes of Yell, Unst and Whalsay to have their own dedicated councillor again.
Earlier this summer Yousaf – who replaced Derek Mackay as islands minister following May’s Scottish Parliament elections – met local campaigners to hear about discontent over the length of time it is taking for the SNP to cut ferry fares in the Northern Isles.
During the election campaign the SNP pledged to reduce fare levels. After Yousaf announced fares would be frozen in the interim while a new model is drawn up, he faced criticism from some including Shetland MSP Tavish Scott – though local authority members including Robinson and transport committee chairman Michael Stout were more receptive.