Orcadian Column 10.10.19

It is good, every now and again, to take yourself out of your comfort zone. In doing so, however, you may consider it prudent at least to remain within the same hemisphere as your comfort zone.

What possessed me, a year ago, to accept Edgar Balfour’s invitation to ‘volunteer’ for Orkney Celebrity Masterchef 2019 is now lost in the mists of time. I can only assume that a glancing blow to the head had seen me temporarily take leave of my senses.

Yet, having endured a mounting sense of panic in the build up to last week’s extravaganza, I can honestly say that the evening itself proved to be tremendous fun. To my great relief, the judges were in forgiving mood and happy to accentuate the positives, while the audience provided raucous support and encouragement throughout.

As for my fellow contestants, Lee, Cameron and Gwenda, I could not have asked for finer. Ultimately, Lee was a very worthy winner, but all the way through, it felt like a genuine team effort. Certainly, the camaraderie the four of us enjoyed before, during and since has been brilliant and may yet spawn the establishment of our very own support group.

The purpose of Masterchef, of course, is to showcase what Orkney has to offer when it comes to high quality food and drink. Frankly, this is not a difficult sell, always assuming you have avoided burning it to a crisp!

Food and drink has traditionally been, and remains, one of the great strengths of our islands and an undoubted success story for Orkney’s local economy. It is a sector that will be looking to the National Islands Plan, published earlier this week, for signs that government recognises this importance and is prepared to support its future growth. In that respect, it will not be alone.

The Plan itself emerges from the Islands Act, passed by the Scottish Parliament last year. During its passage through parliament, Tavish Scott and I sought to amend the bill in various ways to ensure it met the needs and expectations of the island communities we were elected to represent.

We saw it as an opportunity to bind this and future governments into commitments that guaranteed islanders access to appropriate levels of service in a range of different areas. In response, Ministers argued that such detail was not appropriate in a bill and was best left to the National Islands Plan. That being the case, Ministers now need to deliver. Vague promises and warm words are not enough.

On lifeline transport, for example, I made the point that Orkney’s internal ferry service falls well below even the government’s on minimum standards of provision. With still no sign of agreement on new vessels, improved timetables or sustainable, long term funding arrangements, the Islands Plan offers an opportunity to remedy that injustice and force Scottish Ministers to act. On air travel too, the earlier removal of business travel from the Air Discount Scheme continues to tilt the playing field against isles-based businesses trying to compete with mainland counterparts and should be reversed.

In terms of digital connections, whether high speed broadband or mobile phone coverage, our islands continue to play catch up and provision remains well below regional, let alone national coverage rates. This lack of connectivity is holding back our islands and addressing it should be a priority for any Islands Plan.

As for areas such as health and education, while models need to be tailored to meet island circumstances, the Islands Plan should make clear that this does not mean any dilution of islanders’ rights when it comes to access to services, or the quality of those services.

The passing of an Islands Act in 2018 was undoubtedly a positive step, though the Islands Plan will be key in determining whether or not islanders and island communities feel any practical benefit. Nor is the Act an end point, as changing needs will require an agile response from government, including being ready to accept the case for greater decision making at an island level in future.

For Scottish Ministers and their officials, that is likely to mean taking them well outside their comfort zones.

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