David Stewart MSP
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
Islands (Scotland) Bill
8 February 2018
This is an important and historic debate for the islands and, indeed, all of Scotland.
As a Highlands and Islands regional member, I am delighted to contribute.
I put on the record my recognition of the work of Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council.
Their first-class policy analysis and campaigning work on the issue was rightly recognised with a national joint campaign award.
In addition, the minister has been a doughty and persistent campaigner for an islands bill—I hope that that praise from me does not ruin his political career.
Why a bill just for the islands?
Surely mainland rural areas have the same problems.
What about deprivation, unemployment and poverty in our inner cities?
Well, of course, this is a not a zero-sum game.
As iconic Secretary of State of Scotland Willie Ross said in the second reading of the Highland Development (Scotland) Bill,
“It has never been more important than today that all the country’s resources should be fully exploited, and the Highlands”
“have much to contribute. This is not a case of giving to the Highlands”
“This is a case of giving the”
islands and the
“Highlands a chance to play their full part in the future of Britain.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1086.]
Of course, much has changed in our island communities since Willie Ross’s stirring speech echoed across Westminster—the discovery of oil and gas; the development of the University of the Highlands and Islands, with five of its 13 academic partners being wholly based on the islands; the common agricultural policy; the minimum wage; the air discount scheme; the introduction of route development funding; the road equivalent tariff; the rural fuel rebate; and European structural and investment funds.
However, whether the policy in question originated in Brussels, London or Edinburgh, the end result was a win-win for island communities.
To echo the EU’s global Europe 2050 vision, policies should not be “territorially blind”.
However, some things have not changed.
At a conference that was organised by Shetland Islands Council and the Committee of the Regions, the 2011 Euroislands study, which analysed island communities across the EU, was debated and discussed.
The common characteristics are that islands have below-average connectivity, their gross domestic product is below the European average, economic convergence is slower, numbers of job and career opportunities are low and services are of variable quality and high cost.
As a counterweight, the 2012 Geospec survey concluded that islands have close-knit communities, high-value natural capital and the potential for renewable energy.
Perhaps the minister will share my view that the UK should have joined the other 14 EU countries in the clean energy for EU islands initiative, which was signed in Malta in 2017.
However, the survey also said that islands experienced higher vulnerability to climate change through heightening sea levels and an increased likelihood of storms.
I believe that the time is right for a new islands act that builds on the best practice from Scotland, as exemplified by the our islands, our future campaign, which has been mentioned often today and which looks to Europe and beyond.
Perhaps the best exemplar that I can find for future legislation—and the minister is aware of this—is the Japanese Remote Islands Development Act of 1953, with which all members will be intimately familiar.
It was one of the first pieces of legislation in the world to recognise the distinct nature of island communities.
As a result of that act, the Japanese island of Okinawa, which has close ties with the UHI, became a prefecture, which is the first level of jurisdiction and administrative division in Japan.
Perhaps, in winding up, the minister could comment further on best practice.
I hope that he has swotted up on the 1953 act since I last warned him about it.
In addition, I ask the minister to say whether he supports the plea to have a single public service authority in the islands, which would combine health, local authority and elements of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
Nearer to home, it is worth stressing that there is nothing new in the argument for strengthening our island communities.
The Montgomery committee, which reported in April 1984, recommended consolidating, developing and extending the powers of island councils.
One of the key elements of the Treaty on European Union was the principle of subsidiarity—that is, taking decisions in a localised, decentralised way.
The EU has always had strong and consistent policies to give special attention to the specific characteristics of territories with serious and permanent handicaps, including islands.
Those handicaps are well known to islanders: limited and costly modes of transport, restricted and declining economic activities, the fragility of markets and the loss of young people.
So what would an islands bill look like?
As we have said, the template is the our islands, our future campaign.
However, new powers need new financial muscle.
Real devolution means resource-based control: transferring control of the sea bed from the Crown Estate to island authorities and onwards to the community land and harbour trusts.
New powers need strategic decision making in the planning, designing and commissioning of mainland-to-island ferry services, and the recognition of island status in the Scottish constitutional set-up.
As well as gaining new powers, we must keep what works well.
As the old cliché says, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
That is why many of my colleagues across the chamber are so keen to see HIE’s headquarters remain in the Highlands and Islands, with a single HIE board and chief executive, and continued decentralisation of staff in our island authorities.
The bigger picture is that we need active Scottish Government and Westminster Government commitment to the relocation of public sector jobs to island communities—for example, CalMac jobs to the Western Isles, Marine Scotland jobs to Shetland and the Crown Estate’s headquarters to Orkney, as a starter for 10. It is clear that there is support for the principle of island proofing to fight isolation, remoteness and peripherality.
I will finish my speech as I started it, by quoting Willie Ross in the 1965 debate about the Highlands and Islands.
“No part of Scotland has been given a shabbier deal by history from the ’45 onwards. Too often there has been only one way out of troubles for the person born in the Highlands and islands—emigration.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1095.]
Those who are entrusted with carrying out the duties in the new Islands (Scotland) Bill might find themselves involved in a date with history and being part of the history of Scotland.
In the words of Sir Walter Scott, all that we need is :
“The will to do, the soul to dare.”