Liam McArthur response to Future Islands Bill consultation.
I write to submit my response to the Consultation on Provisions for a Future Islands Bill.
My responses to the questions set out in the consultation are as follows:
(1). Is the concept of ‘Island-Proofing’ something the Scottish Government should consider placing in legislation through the proposed Islands Bill?
There are numerous examples of centralised “one-size-fits-all” policies imposed by legislation which damage the interests of the islands where circumstances are very different from those in the Central Belt and are also often different from those in the rural areas of the Scottish Mainland. By way of example, issues in the recent pass are:
The creation of single police and fire and rescue authorities for Scotland has created authorities which are driven by policies and targets set by Central Belt based officers. These policies and targets, and the budget decisions which follow from them, do not meet the needs of island communities. Moreover, the loss of control rooms has led to a loss of local knowledge, a sharp step away from local policing by consent.
On a more specific level, current building regulations risk making fuel poverty levels in the islands worse. At present, Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) rules mean that new houses in Orkney are often built using less insulation than they should. The SAP rules, applicable across the country, penalise developers for using mains electricity as a primary fuel source. While renewable heating systems are installed to obtain a SAP ‘pass’, the effect can be that insulation levels are compromised and running costs are higher. One constituent described the current system as “forcing a fuel poverty legacy to be designed into every new home.” This would seem to be an ideal issue for a forthcoming Islands Bill.
(2) If you answered ‘Yes’ to question 1, do you agree that Scottish Ministers should have the power to issue statutory guidance to other relevant public bodies related to Island-Proofing which they would be required to adhere to in exercising their functions and duties.
(3) If you answered ‘Yes’ to question 2, please state which public bodies, and what specific decisions this statutory guidance you think this should relate to?
All public bodies controlled by the Scottish Government and Parliament should be required to Island-Proof their actions.
Bodies such as Marine Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Transport Scotland, for example, clearly have a big impact on the islands. Their actions have the potential to significantly affect those living and working in the islands, both beneficially or adversely. It should be incumbent on all public bodies to ensure they do not impose inappropriate measures on the islands.
In vital policy areas, such as education and health, there may be issues where what is appropriate in the Central Belt is appropriate for the islands too, but there will be many issues where this is far from the case. Regulation of home care workers is perhaps a useful example whereby the level of training and accreditation required for home visits to patients on the smaller isles can appear disproportionate and a disincentive for people to take on or continue in roles that often more about social interaction than healthcare provision. All Scottish public bodies need to have a duty to ensure that they do not, through ignorance of island needs, unintentionally damage island interests.
(4) Are there any other areas that you feel the policy of Island-Proofing should cover?
The Scottish Government also needs to take into consideration the interests of the islands when negotiating with the UK Government and with the European Union. For example, when it comes to energy policy, the islands can help to meet the UK and EU wide need to generate more renewable sources. Orkney, for example, produced over 100% electricity from. But the Islands can only deliver if policies provide interconnector cables charging affordable rates for access. And concerted effective support is needed for the marine renewable energy sector as it works towards the development of fully commercial technology if the islands’ massive wave and tidal current resources are to be tapped.
Island proofing will need to be more than a tick box exercise. It will require a different way of doing things. A recognition that ministers don’t know best; that one size does not fit all; and that island communities must be allowed both the power and resources to make more of the decisions that directly affect them
(5) Do you agree that the current powers Island Councils, and Councils with Island responsibilities presently have are sufficient to deliver positive outcomes for their local island communities?
(6) If you answered ‘No’ to question 5, please outline what additional powers you feel they require to benefit or better protect the island communities they serve, and explain the reasons for your answer.
The ownership and management of the seabed round the islands should not just to be devolved to Edinburgh, but passed on to the islands. This is because of the vital importance of the industries and activities taking place in the coastal zones to the economies of the islands.
Orkney Islands Council should take over the seabed round Orkney. The Islands Council should also have enhanced powers when it comes to real involvement in the management external transport links, whether this be over the development of the contracts and fare structure of the islands’ lifeline external ferry links or over the management of the HIAL run airports in each island area.
(7) Do you feel there is a requirement to make any additions to the existing Zetland and Orkney County Council Acts of 1974?
Possibly, if this were to be the mechanism by which controls over the seabed were passed to the two islands councils. There is also a question as to whether or not the geographic reach of the seabed to be controlled by Orkney could be extended to create further responsibilities and opportunities where the protection of maritime area is concerned.
(8) Should any of the powers currently set out in the Zetland and Orkney County Council Acts of 1974 be extended to the Western Isles and other relevant Councils?
I can see no reason why all the island authorities should not have the powers Orkney and Shetland have enjoyed thanks to these acts. Orkney and Shetland have used the powers effectively and responsibly to the benefit of the Northern Isles and of the UK as a whole. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar could, I am sure, make similar good use of the same powers. So they should be offered them. I can also see no good reason why Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council should not also have powers over the waters round their islands.
(9) Do you think the Scottish Government should introduce a ‘National Islands Plan’?
Yes, but it should not be called “national” and it must be a working, active plan. It should provide a framework within which the interests of the islands could be considered on issues which are not subject to island-proofed legislation, but are part of the day to day actions of government.
(10) Are there any specific areas you feel the plan should cover and report on?
This should cover all the areas of devolved government. Four examples where such an approach would have helped would include:
On ferries, such a plan may have prevented a structure where a so called Road Equivalent Tariff scheme was introduced solely on the west coast which saw massive cuts in ferry fares. This unfair and unjustified approach left the Northern Isles without a share of the benefits of the extra ferry funding. The Plan could allow for proposed changes in the way ferry fares are set to be properly examined, with the principles and the details debated. This would have shone a spotlight on the shortcomings of the current RET system. Orkney would have then been able to challenge its unjustified exclusion and make the case for funding to reduce ferry fare costs to, from and within Orkney.
On air fares, the increase in the Air Discount Scheme is certainly welcome. However, under the former Liberal Democrat-Labour Coalition ADS was extended to business travel for island residents. This is no longer the case since the SNP Government chose to cut the scheme from island businesses in 2010 without any consultation whatsoever. This decision is in need of re-examination, particularly given the detrimental effect it has had on the ability of Islands businesses to compete on a more even footing with mainland counterparts. An Islands Plan would prevent such significant decisions being take without proper consultation.
The other, more important, side of the coin to air fares is reliability. For those living and working in the Islands, Loganair is the only provider of scheduled air services. They are a lifeline link for many businesses, patients travelling to hospital appointments as well as the wider public. Of course the service that Loganair provides receives substantial amounts of public funding. This is absolutely appropriate given its strategic and lifeline nature, but it begs a question about what steps the Scottish Government is taking or can take to reassure itself about continuity of service over the longer term. Given the age of Loganair’s Saab fleet, there will be a need at some point to look at replacement with newer aircraft. The options currently appear limited, but that may not be the case in future. Any decision to introduce new aircraft, however, could have far-reaching implications in terms of how routes are serviced, cost structures and runway/airport infrastructure across the Islands. Clearly, these all have implications for ADS, HIAL and Transport Scotland. An Islands Plan should therefore work with relevant parties, including Loganair, to examine the longer term provision of this lifeline service
On health, for the financial year 2014/2015 NHS Orkney saw a projected underfunding of £4.5 million as assessed by the Government’s own NRAC formula and confirmed by Audit Scotland. This has led to a squeeze on NHS budgets and therefore services in Orkney, which is already stretched due to the costly nature of the provision of services for people living in remote island communities. For example, NHS Orkney still faces challenges in recruiting to vacant medical posts and continues to rely on locum doctors. An Islands Plan should make sure that the needs of the island health boards, particularly where the costly provision of services are concerned, are properly represented so that the unique funding challenges faced by island communities are met. Indeed, such a plan would go a long way to avoid the drastic but necessary £1m brokerage from the Scottish Government for NHS Orkney in 2014.
Good, reliable and affordable broadband is increasingly essential, not just for businesses but also for households looking to access a range of services. It is also a key means of families and friends keeping in touch. In Orkney, however, the current broadband roll out is only set to see 75% of premises covered by the end of 2016, compared to a figure of 84% for the Highlands and Islands region as a whole. I believe that addressing this issue now needs to be the key focus for an islands plan. Plugging the remaining gaps in coverage is likely to require a range of different technologies, as well as improved mobile phone coverage. Regardless of the difficulties, broadband and mobile phone coverage for island communities is vital for connectivity and on the basis of need islands should be at the front of the queue.
(11) If such a plan was introduced, what in your view would be an appropriate life span for the plan – e.g. 3 years/5 years/other?
It would seem logical that the life span of a Plan should match the life span of each Scottish Parliament. A new Government appointed after each election should be required to present a draft Plan within three months of its appointment. This would then be subject to consultation before a final Plan is set, say, within 6 months of the election.
(12) Do you agree that statutory protection should be given to the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constituency?
The strong case for the statutory protection of the Shetland and Orkney seats also applies to the Western Isles seat. All three island groups have special needs and interests, not always shared with the other two groups, so each needs a unique voice in Holyrood.
(13) Should the Scottish Government consider amending the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004 to allow the LGBCS the power to make an exception to the usual 3 or 4 member ward rule for use with respect to populated islands?
In Orkney, I am aware of concerns that the current ward covering all of the North Isles poses significant logistical problems, not least in terms of travel between islands. The varied nature of specific issues and population sizes across the islands has also made representing the single ward challenging. Meanwhile, the South Isles are currently within a ward containing Stromness, and this has also given rise to concerns about the ‘balance’ that is achieved between the interests of those on the smaller islands and those in the mainland part of the ward.
I do believe that each islands council should have the power to make the case to the LGBCS for the introduction of single or two member wards where there is a strong geographical case. LGBCS should then have a duty to respond positively to such a case where it can be demonstrated that it would improve the representation of those living in the proposed smaller ward.
(14) Please provide details of any additional issues, not addressed in your other responses, that you think should be considered in relation to the introduction of a future Islands Bill and its potential provisions.