Northern Isles MSPs Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott used the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference on Friday (26/02) to launch their bold plan for the Islands.
Addressing a motion at the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference, which was passed overwhelmingly, the two MSPs set out their party’s plans for a future Islands Bill.
The motion, “A fair deal for our islands”, sets out Scottish Liberal Democrat plans for greater devolution of power to Scotland’s islands communities, ensuring decisions taken centrally take more account of island needs which Orkney MSP Liam McArthur described as “badly needed.”
In the motion, the Northern Isles MSPs calls for the next Scottish Government to ‘island-proof’ decisions and ensure legislation actually delivers improvements in practice. The motion also reiterates calls for the power over seabed assets, and not simply revenues, to be devolved to a local level.
Prior to the debate, the Liam McArthur MSP paid tribute to the three island authorities, including Orkney Islands Council, who have helped drive the campaign for island autonomy.
Speaking during the debate, Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said:
“Being brought up in Orkney convinced me of the need to give individuals and communities the tools they need to determine their own future. That is why I am a liberal.
“It is also why, like others in Orkney, I have grown increasingly frustrated at the current Scottish Government’s one size fits all approach to public services. SNP Ministers appear to want to run everything from the central belt, but the message from island communities is clear: this does not work.
“An ‘islands plan’ should provide a framework that reflects the different circumstances and needs of our distinct islands. After the next election, any incoming government should be required to present a draft Islands Plan, which would be subject to consultation and agreement within 6 months of the election.
“As a priority, an Islands Plan must address the continued exclusion of Orkney from the Scottish Government’s cheaper ferry fares scheme, transfer control of our seabed resources to a local level, consider how we secure the future of our lifeline air services and set more ambitious targets for the roll out of broadband and mobile phone coverage right across our islands. Those are my priorities for Orkney.
“Now is the time to be more radical in passing powers to island communities. The islands have their own unique challenges and islanders know best how to address these. The SNP’s record in government shows that they want devolution to stop in Edinburgh. These proposals would bring back power to where it belongs, with our island communities.”
A fair deal for our islands
- The strong feelings in Shetland and Orkney against the centralisation of public services, for example on policing, fire services, colleges, economic development, public sector construction and civil engineering contracts.
- Scottish Liberal Democrats support for radical action to reverse centralisation and empower communities through the Home Rule and Community Rule Commission report.
- The distinct needs of the islands on many matters, not least the seafood industries, the Scottish government's exclusion of business from the Air Discount Scheme and the exclusion of Orkney and Shetland from any mechanism to reduce ferry fares.
- The ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign jointly led by Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar seeking additional powers to give communities greater control over island requirements.
- The Scottish government’s centralised “one-size-fits-all” policies damage the interests of the islands where circumstances are very different from the Scottish Mainland.
- Public bodies such as Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Transport Scotland, for example, have a particularly big impact on island communities.
- The seabed around islands is of vital economic importance locally and nationally.
- Fuel poverty is higher in island communities than elsewhere in Scotland, due to poor housing stock, low incomes, and high fuel costs. This risks being made worse as Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) rules result in new houses in island communities without access to mains gas are often built using less insulation.
- Air services are a lifeline link for businesses, patients travelling to hospital appointments and the wider public. Confidence in services has been hit following months of reduced reliability due to technical faults.
- In vital policy areas solutions in the Central Belt are inappropriate for the islands. Regulation of home care workers is one example. The level of accreditation required for home visits to patients on the smaller isles can appear disproportionate when visits more often deliver social interaction than healthcare provision.
- NHS Orkney and NHS Shetland have been underfunded by the Scottish government, as assessed by the government’s own NRAC formula and confirmed by Audit Scotland. This has led to a squeeze on NHS budgets and services, already stretched by the costly nature of the provision of services in island communities.
- Good, reliable and affordable broadband is essential. For the Northern Isles, however, the current broadband roll out is only set to see 75% of premises covered by the end of 2016. This compares to a figure of 84% for the Highlands and Islands region as a whole and 95% nationally.
Some council ward boundaries do not take account of transport or the differences between island communities, meaning that island residents can be under-represented.
Conference resolves that a future Islands (Scotland) Bill should:
- Subject all legislation proposed by the Scottish government to ‘Island-Proofing’ to reflect the needs of island communities. ‘Island-Proofing’ should be extended to Scottish government negotiations with the UK government and with the European Union.
- Give Scottish government ministers the power, only at the request of local authorities, to issue statutory guidance in relation to island communities which relevant public bodies would be required to adhere to.
- Ensure the ownership and management of the seabed round the islands should be devolved not just to Edinburgh, but passed to the islands.
- Give Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council the powers over the waters round their islands.
- Reform Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) rules to help in efforts to reduce bills and tackle fuel poverty.
- Extend the statutory protection of the Shetland and Orkney seat to Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
- Give island councils the power to make the case to the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland for the introduction of single or two member wards where there is a strong geographical case.
- Introduce a working, active “Islands Plan” to provide a framework to address the interests of the islands. A new Scottish government should be required to present a draft plan within 3 months of its appointment, then subject to consultation before a final plan is set within 6 months of the election to last the full parliamentary term.
Conference resolves that a future Islands Plan should:
- Make provision to meet the costly provision of services faced by island communities, such as the recruitment of NHS staff and the provision of mental health services.
- Work with relevant parties, including Loganair, to examine the longer term provision of this lifeline service.
- Ensure significant decisions are not taken without proper consultation, such as the decisions of the SNP government to exclude business from the Air Discount Scheme and the exclusion of Orkney and Shetland from any mechanism to reduce ferry fares.
- Set out a framework and delivery of funding to plug the remaining gaps in broadband and mobile phone coverage.
Conference resolves that the Scottish Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party should:
- Consult and work with Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local authorities who have responsibility for island communities and relevant stakeholders, to build a consensus around future action.