Orcadian Column, 25 January 2023

26 Jan 2023

On Friday, I attended a ceremony in the OIC Chamber at which the leaders of all three island authorities joined UK and Scottish Ministers to formally sign an Islands Growth Deal that has been a decade in the making. It sees both governments commit to investing £50m each over the next ten years to support a range of projects harnessing the world class, innovative strengths of our islands, paving the way for Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides to continue punching above our collective weight.

Those who played a part in the painstaking process leading up to last week’s signing deserve great credit. In keeping with City Region Deals already in place across the UK, this agreement has the potential to act as a catalyst for positive development in our islands over the coming years, leveraging in a further £235m in additional investment.

Under the three themes of leading the way to a low carbon future; supporting growth and future industries; and thriving sustainable communities there are a mix of single and joint island projects. The Islands Centre for Net Zero, for example, will see EMEC head up work exploring, trialling and accelerating potential solutions to energy decarbonisation across all three island groups. £6.5m will also be invested in a Scapa Flow Future Fuels Hub, looking at developing storage and distribution solutions for greener maritime fuels.

Meanwhile, the Orkney World Heritage Gateway project aims to create a world leading sustainable tourism offer, investing in sites, infrastructure and the use of innovative technologies. And the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College will lead a vertical farm initiative, powered by renewables and again enhancing research and innovation.

Across these and other projects collaboration will be crucial, both within island groups involving businesses, academics, researchers, public agencies and local communities and between Orkney, Shetland and Outer Hebrides. As well as helping build skills and capacity, this approach makes a welcome change from governments playing off one island group against another.

While getting the deal ‘over the line’ has been difficult, it is as nothing compared to what lies ahead in terms of delivering the ambition. Events last week, however, at least suggest a willingness on all sides to commit to the long term.

Staying the course will also be important in relation to the Scottish Government’s Carbon Neutral Islands initiative, which was debated in parliament on the eve of the Islands Deal launch. Six islands have been chosen as ‘lighthouse communities’ aiming to reach net zero by 2040. The debate enabled me to congratulate all six islands, including Hoy and welcome the appointment of the Hoy Development Trust as the ‘anchor’ partner, supported by Community Energy Scotland.

Of course every island is different, but the hope is that the experience of Hoy & Co will help others chart their own route to net zero. The approach is firmly community-based and will be led in Hoy by recently appointed carbon development officer, Aisling Philips who will undertake an ‘audit’ over the coming months to inform an appropriate pathway for the island. Funding, needless to say, will be crucial and Ministers must find more creative financing options, not least in addressing the needs in housing and transport.

During the debate, I highlighted again the sky-high levels of fuel poverty that blight our islands, including Hoy. Investment in high quality new housing and retrofitting existing homes will be costly, but essential. Moreover, there is little point creating carbon neutral islands if they are served by old, polluting and highly inefficient ferries. My amendment called for lifeline ferry services to be factored into the Carbon Neutral Islands initiative. Helpfully, the Minister, Mairi Gougeon agreed. New ferries it is, then!

Tackling these issues will require every ounce of collaboration we can throw at them. And as we know, climate change and biodiversity loss don’t really care about the constitution.

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