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Politics / Newly elected SNP list MSP to focus on Northern Isles

Emma Roddick quotes housing, mental health and shifting more powers to local government as her priorities

The SNP's Highlands and Islands list MSP Emma Roddick is the parliament's youngest member.

THE SNP’s new Highlands and Islands list MSP says she is heartened by the level of interest and engagement among islanders in tackling the twin problems of fuel and child poverty.

This past weekend saw Emma Roddick make her first official visit to Shetland since being elected last month. She said multiple conversations had brought home that “folk are thinking about inequality, thinking about the amount of fuel poverty that exists in the islands”.

With the SNP having been in government at Holyrood since 2007, many would argue that the party should have done more to eliminate fuel and child poverty.

Roddick says there are “a lot of commitments in our manifesto that will improve things further”, but told BBC Radio Shetland that without full control over reserved matters such as energy policy, social security and employment law were necessary to have a “completely joined-up approach”.

She said discussions about setting up new trusts utilising some of the SIC and Shetland Charitable Trust’s combined £800m oil wealth to tackle fuel and child poverty were “really interesting”.

“I have heard a lot of people raise it with me and I’m glad it’s being considered,” Roddick told Shetland News at the end of her three-day visit on Sunday.

It is, she emphasised, a decision for islanders to take and she is conscious not to “rock up” and tell the community how to use its own funds:  “It’s Shetland’s money so it needs to be Shetland that decides what to do with it.”

On that theme, her political opponents in these parts have long criticised the SNP government for a centralising tendency and a resistance to greater devolution of decision-making powers.

In addition to huge criticism of HIAL’s plans to centralise air traffic control to Inverness, recent months have seen frustration among local politicians about how Covid-19 restrictions are applied in the islands.

Roddick acknowledges “that frustration exists in a lot of places” where case numbers have been much lower than in the central belt.

She describes herself as “a big supporter of more local government… more powers to councils”, saying there needs to be “a bit more trust in local government, and that comes with better engagement, transparency”.

With former islands minister Humza Yousaf and ex-Highlands and Islands list MSP Maree Todd both now in the cabinet “I think there is a good understanding of the issues, and I’m excited to see what Shetland makes of the Islands Act – there are a lot of mechanisms in there that haven’t been utilised yet.”

Although their candidate Tom Wills won 42 per cent of the constituency vote and the SNP topped the list ballot, Roddick is the only nationalist politician representing these shores.

With the SNP having swept the board in Highlands constituencies, that means the Northern Isles are likely to be a significant part of Roddick’s focus over the next five years.

While it was “a shame Shetland didn’t choose [Wills] this time, he is still very much involved in the party and I’m really glad to have his input and expertise in how I can best help Shetland as part of my region”.

“We have to recognise there is this swell of support for the SNP, and they haven’t got an SNP constituency MSP, but they have got me and I have the responsibility to represent them as best as I can,” Roddick told Shetland News.

“Shetland and Orkney are the two constituencies which I don’t have an SNP colleague in, so I’m really keen to be here as much as possible. I don’t think you can represent a place if you’re never there.”

Looking ahead to next year’s council elections she believes there are “a lot of SNP members in Shetland who would make excellent local representatives” and she would “like to see” some of them standing for office.

Roddick is concerned about “distrust in politics at all levels”, particularly a spate of instances where UK Government ministers have been found to have broken the law – matters which in the past would have led to resignations: “If your job is to make laws, and you can’t follow your own laws, it’s hard to sell the idea to everybody else that they should follow the law. It’s indefensible.”

Having been a Highlands councillor for two years, at 23 she is Holyrood’s youngest MSP. That means people “have certain expectations of what I’m going to be like” – it is “hard to know if they’re pleasantly surprised or disappointed”, she jokes.

But rather than dwell on her age, she focuses on “things I’ve been through and things I care about”. In particular she is engaged with tackling Scotland’s mounting mental health problems (she has borderline personality disorder and PTSD) and addressing the shortage of housing (having been homeless herself at one time).

Roddick says mental health issues were clearly prevalent prior to Covid-19 but “maybe the pandemic has meant folk who would probably have gone through their whole lives without depression” struggled having lost their job, or become more lonely during lockdown, which has “maybe opened their eyes to how it was for many other people”.

She has previously described tackling housing issues as her “number one” priority. During her visit last weekend, in addition to meeting SIC councillors and various charities, she met with Hjaltland Housing and discussed the SNP administration’s intention to decarbonise homes.

“I think that’s going to be quite key, not only in terms of making things greener but updating the heating and energy supplies to make it more affordable for people,” Roddick says, adding that rather than prioritising either retrofitting or building new homes it is clear housing developers “have to do both”.