If the Scottish Government believes that Island Bonus Scheme is the answer, then what is the question?
The main problems on the islands are depopulation, access to housing, transport, poor digital infrastructure, and access to employment.
You have to keep in mind that each island group is different to the others and each island itself is different to all the others There are issues that all islands suffer from, but it is difficult to see the five million in the Island Bonus, broken down into 100 batches of up to £50,000 as anything other than a stunt. Perhaps, this is just a gimmick to distract people from all the issues, for some of which the Scottish Government is directly responsible.
In Shetland, depopulation in Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula, Papa Stour and Skerries is a problem. Access to housing, limited inter-island ferry services and to limited access to employment all drive people away. One reason for depopulation in an overall small number of houses is the number that are holiday homes; this has to be looked at. In Denmark, for example, you do not get to buy a house unless you have been resident for five years. Is this an approach that should be considered?
An issue is that already high house prices will go even higher if someone has £50,000 in their pockets to boost their bid. Locals can be priced out of the market; the Island Bonus will not help. There were no houses for sale advertised in the Shetland Times this week; there have not been many over the last few months. Houses are selling by word of mouth, and over the odds. Access to affordable houses for rent is another problem, there are empty houses but they are in the wrong place.
Transport is a problem. There are issues with bus service availability, then bus price affordability kicks in. Inter-island ferries timetables make getting about Shetland problematic, and while increased tourism through staycations is welcome, getting a space on a ferry can be an issue. Old ferries are prone to breaking down, and you do wonder why we have to rely on their diesel belching as we approach the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. The ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen also has capacity issues, with increased staycations; pricing is a bone of contention locally.
The further away from the centre of Shetland you go, the slower, generally, the internet gets. This is just not acceptable in 2021 when so much work is now based on access to decent internet speeds.
Access to employment opportunities depends on some of the previous issues. What is the internet like, how do you get to face to face meetings? All of these issues militate against staying in some of the remoter islands.
Locals are asking about the motivation of a mover, are they being bribed to move? How long will they stay? Do they have to refund the money if they leave within a set time?
There might be justification for the Island Bonus if the funding could be targeted towards professionals such as health workers or teachers in the specialist subjects.
Some would say population retention is, in some cases, as important as depopulation.
There were even problems with the consultation.
One is that the whole tenor of the process was: the scheme is going ahead regardless of what is fed back. You have to ask: what is the point of a consultation when it has already been decided that the scheme is going ahead? There was no option in the consultation to oppose the introduction of the Island Bonus.
The consultation survey asked about capital investment in the islands. My suggestion would be update digital infrastructure, build a new hospital in Lerwick, replace ferries with fixed links. Norway is building tunnels having started with ferries, then bridges. With electric cars comes the issue of where to recharge them, that would be money well spent too.
I am sure the other island groups could just as easily come up with a similar shopping list. Five million would not stretch far. The Islands Bonus is just window dressing.
Another issue is the bureaucracy that will be set up to work as an advisory service to support those relocating.
There is a suggestion that measuring and evaluating the Islands Bond and its outcomes would be reported publicly. Given the sizes of island populations, this would allow islanders to work out who got what and where. Privacy issues and data protection issues appear not to have been considered.
The Scottish Government’s time would be better spent asking islanders what the issues are, some are listed above. And then the Scottish Government should crack on and fix the problems instead of this head line grabbing nonsense!