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Committee backs principles of islands bill – but warns it must not be a ‘tick box’ exercise

The Scottish Parliament's rural economy and connectivity committee chairman Edward Mountain, a Tory Highlands and Islands list MSP.

A COMMITTEE of MSPs has recommended that the Scottish Parliament should adopt the general principles behind a new islands bill – and is urging the Scottish Government to ensure assessments of the impact policies could have on islands “should not become a tick box exercise”.

The rural economy and connectivity committee has endorsed the bill – which came about on the back of the Our Islands Our Future intiative by Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils – but says it is vital that the actual priorities of islanders are reflected in a national islands plan that is due to follow.

The committee is also calling on the Scottish Government to amend the bill to allow for retrospective assessments to be carried out “if it can be demonstrated that a specific piece of current legislation or policy has a significantly detrimental impact on island communities”.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott responded by saying that the bill must “undo the damage” of centralisation and steer policy-making away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

The committee’s convener, Tory MSP Edward Mountain, described the bill as “an enabling piece of legislation that will provide for future action” by the government.

But he said the committee believed ministers would “need to manage the expectations of islanders who may expect more immediate, tangible outcomes to be delivered”.

“Our report recommends that the government adopts the widest possible consultation on the development of the national islands plan,” Mountain said, “and cautions that island impact assessments should not become a tick box exercise.

“This committee supports the empowerment of island communities and stresses the importance of local decision making. Our report, therefore, calls for local authority level plans to be created that sit under the national islands plan.”

Mountain added: “While it is unrealistic to retrospectively assess all current legislation in Scotland, we think there should be a provision in the bill to carry out an impact assessment where evidence suggests the existing law has a significant detrimental impact on the islands.”

Following the report’s publication, Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur said next month’s budget would provide an “immediate test of the Scottish Government’s commitment to the principle of ‘island proofing’”.

“The Scottish Government will not be taken seriously by islanders without delivering their promise of fair funding for internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland,” the two Northern Isles MSPs said in a joint statement.

“With industrial action now underway on services within Orkney, the future of these genuine lifeline links for some of the most fragile communities in the country are under threat. Ministers cannot ignore the needs of our constituents. They must act now and deliver their promise in their budget.”

Scott and McArthur said that “all too often” communities had “seen decision-making powers stripped away by the SNP government and their one-size-fits-all approach to legislation and policy-making”.

They welcomed the committee’s call for the islands bill to include a provision to review current policy and legislation, adding; “An islands bill with this provision would have real teeth to undo the damage of centralisation”.