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Islands empowerment an ongoing process

Former councillor Gary Robinson was one of there initiators of the Our Islands Our Future campaign. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

ONE OF the driving forces behind the Our Islands Our Future initiative has described the Scottish islands bill as an important step in the journey towards greater empowerment and self-determination for island communities.

While the bill was unanimously passed by MSPs on Wednesday afternoon, there was some criticism that the legislation had been watered down and wasn’t ambitious enough.

However, former Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson, one of the architects of the campaign, said he was impressed by the quality of the cross-party support the bill had received as it went through the legislative process.

And he said that due to the fact that the SNP runs a minority government at Holyrood, politicians from all parties had contributed constructively to the bill.

Robinson, who lost his council seat during last year’s election, said it was now up to island communities to fully engage in the process of writing the national islands plan to ensure that the aspirations and communities are reflected in the document.

“We got the cross-party support we always felt we needed, and that culminated in the bill being voted through unanimously,” he said.

“One of the most crucial amendments passed on Wednesday was the one that allows island councils to go to government and ask for more powers.

“That wasn’t initially in the bill, and it is one that could be used in the future to see more powers devolved down to local government and indeed into the communities.”

Robinso, who together with his council leader colleagues from Orkney and the Western Isles Steven Heddle and Angus Campbell won the 2014 leadership category at the Scottish public service awards, said devolution was an ongoing process.

“There is a huge opportunity for the islands to help shape the national islands plan,” he said.

“We need to make that the community planning partnerships, community councils and the councils themselves are all involved in that process so that we get a really meaningful islands plan.”

The bill also stipulates a regular reviewing process to benchmark progress against the islands plan.

Robinson added that the islands bill impacts on all the public services serving island communities such as health boards and the emergency services, and not just local authorities.

“The fact that we have parliamentarians to date who are acknowledging some of the issues that we have in the islands is in itself a good thing, as it shows that the awareness has been raised to a point that decision makers are thinking about how these can be addressed.

“The Our Islands Our Future initiative has always said that there should be a continuous process of devolution to the islands.”

He added that latest figures from the Faroe Islands demonstrated how greater autonomy resulted in reduced financial dependency from central government.

“I find that very encouraging,” he said, “because MSPs are already starting to think outside the box and think what they can do in helping us, and certainly one of the things that we have identified is having more fiscal autonomy.

“We can raise money within the islands and we can spend money within the islands, and I think we can do so more effectively than having Holyrood telling us where money should be spent, when their priorities may not be aligned with the issues we see here in the islands.

“There really is a necessity for the momentum to be continued and, clearly, the route for that to be done is through full engagement in shaping the national islands plan.”

Robinson, meanwhile, was appointed the new chairman of NHS Shetland earlier this year and he will take up the post on 1 August.