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Council / ‘Adequate resource’ needed if islands plan is to make a difference, SIC leader warns

Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts. Photo: Shetland News

THE LEADER of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) has welcomed the principles behind the proposed first national islands plan for Scotland – but he warned that its launch is “only the start”.

Steven Coutts said it is clear the Scottish Government needs to develop an implementation plan and “provide adequate resource” if the strategy is to become a success.

The first national islands plan, which aims to provide a “framework for action” to improve outcomes for Scotland’s island communities, follows on from the inaugural islands bill becoming law last year.

A proposed version was introduced on Tuesday afternoon in the Scottish Parliament by Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse, although it had been available online since last week, and a final version is due to be published in the coming months.

Wheelhouse wrote in the plan’s foreword that the “extraordinary natural diversity and cultural importance of our islands deserve to be promoted and protected, and it is my hope that this plan will help us to do just that”.

From April to July the government consulted across Scotland’s islands on issues at the forefront of people’s lives, and this has led to 13 strategic objectives being coined.

They cover a number of areas from population levels, sustainable economic development and housing to transport, fuel poverty, the environment and education.

Each objective features a number of commitments that the Scottish Government says it will carry out.

Most of the commitments are isles-wide, such as fully island-proofing transport related policies and strategies, but Shetland does crop up specifically in a pledge relating to broadband.

It reads: “Mandate the delivery of gigabit-capable connectivity to selected island locations, such as Yell and Sanday, through the R100 programme, with many other island communities to benefit once contracts are finalised later this year.”

SIC leader Coutts said he welcomed the four main principles of the plan – fair, integrated, green and inclusive.

He warned, however, that the needs of Shetland is different to the needs of other islands groups, such as the Western Isles.

The councillor also believes the government needs to properly map out and resource the plan if the commitments are to be realised.

“While this is a national islands plan for Scotland, it is important to acknowledge that the needs and opportunities in individual islands are very different,” Coutts said.

“If we start from the four principles we are in the correct starting place.

“But the islands plan launch is only the start. This plan draws a lot together and it is clear that if it is going to make a difference we need to see the government develop an implementation plan and provide adequate resource.

“As just one example, the island communities of Shetland are clearly disadvantaged by the failure to deliver full and fair ferry funding. There is a section in the islands plan on transport with heavy reference on ferries and improving services.

“The plan’s principle of fairness will clearly fall down if the government fails to deliver full and fair ferry funding for Shetland inter-island ferry service.”

The first of the 13 objectives in the plan is to address population decline and ensure a healthy, balanced population profile, while the second is to improve and promote sustainable economic development.

The government also is keen to improve transport services and housing on the islands, and reduce levels of fuel poverty.

Another objective is to bolster digital connectivity, and to improve and promote health and wellbeing.

There is also an emphasis on improving and promoting environmental wellbeing and dealing with biosecurity, while the government has pledged to “ensure that Scottish islands are at the forefront of contributions to our ambition to end climate change”.

Another objective is to “empower diverse communities and different places”, while supporting arts, culture and language is also on the agenda.

Promoting and improving education is also a key objective.

Specific commitments include ensuring that legislation and policy relating to childcare is “appropriately island-proofed”, developing an action plan to support repopulation of rural and island communities and producing a “long-term plan and investment programme for new ferries and development at ports”.

There is also a promise to “call on the UK Government to prioritise early investment in Scotland’s islands as part of their plans for full fibre roll-out [of broadband] by 2025”.

The government also says it will “continue to work closely with island partners, the network owner and all other key stakeholders to deliver existing proposals for electricity transmission links to mainland Scotland”.

The implementation of the plan will “build on and align” with other strategies, and this includes the proposed islands growth deal – a possible funding package which is being developed with councils in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

It is thought that the deal, which is yet to be confirmed, could lead to the creation of up to 700 jobs in Shetland.

Speaking after introducing the proposed plan in parliament, Wheelhouse said he now looks forward to “taking the plan forward and translating it into action”.

In the debating chamber Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart called on the government to provide Shetland Islands Council with its full fair ferry funding request for 2020/201.

In 2019/20 it received £5.2 million despite asking for £7.9 million.

Wheelhouse said the government will continue to engage with both the SIC and Orkney Islands Council on the issue, adding that it is “very sympathetic” with the position of the two councils.

He noted that “significant” capital costs were part of the ongoing discussions.