David Stewart

Speech : Strengthening and Supporting Scotland’s Island Communities

I begin by saying:

“the Board’s overall purpose ... must be to enable the Highlands” and Islands “to play a more effective part in the economic and social development of the nation. It has never been more important than today that all the country’s resources should be fully exploited, and the Highlands” and Islands “have much to contribute. This is not a case of giving to the Highlands” and Islands; “This is a case of giving the Highlands” and Islands “a chance to play their full part in the future of Britain.” — [Official Report, House of Commons, 16 March 1965; Vol 708, c 1086.]

Those are not my words, but the words of the iconic Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, speaking in the House of Commons during the second reading of the Highland Development Scotland Bill, which set up the groundbreaking Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965.

Willie Ross was cast from the same mould as the great Tom Johnston who, as Secretary of State for Scotland under Winston Churchill, brought hydro power to the glens in the Highlands in the 1940s.

Of course, much has changed in our island communities since Willie Ross’s stirring speech echoed across Westminster.

We have seen changes such as the discovery of oil and gas; the development of the University of the Highlands and Islands, with five of its 13 academic partners wholly based on the islands; the common agricultural policy; the minimum wage; and the air discount scheme that Tavish Scott brought in when he was Minister for Transport.

We have also seen the introduction of route development funding, the road equivalent tariff, the rural fuel rebate and European structural and investment funds.

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. Last month, 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 belowaverage connectivity; their GDP is below the European average; economic convergence there is slower; numbers of job and career opportunities are low; and services there 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 energies.

It also noted, however, 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 best practice from Scotland—as exemplified by the our islands, our future campaign, which has been mentioned often today—and that looks to Europe and beyond.

Perhaps the best exemplar that I can find for future legislation is Japan’s Remote Islands Development Act of 1953, which was one of the first pieces of legislation in the world to recognise the distinct status of island communities.

As a result of that act, the Japanese island of Okinawa, which has close ties with UHI, became a prefecture—the first level of jurisdiction and an administration division in Japan.

Perhaps, in winding up, the minister could comment further on best practice, which he has briefly mentioned already.

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: taking decisions in a localised, decentralised way.

So, what would an islands bill look like? I strongly support—as other members have said today that they support—the work that is carried out by the three islands councils of Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland that has led to the our islands, our future campaign.

On Tuesday, I met Councillor Angus Campbell and Councillor Gary Robinson, the respective leaders of Western Isles and Shetland, to discuss their 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 onward 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 I want 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 our island communities—for example, of Office of Communications jobs to the Western Isles, of Marine Scotland jobs to Shetland and of the Crown Estate’s HQ to Orkney, as a starter for 10.

“Consultation on Provisions for a Future Islands Bill” makes interesting reading.

It is clear that there is support for the principle of island-proofing to fight isolation, remoteness and peripherality—a key tool for empowering the islands.

The UK, of course, has adopted the principle of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which we need to act on.

There is also strong support in the consultation document for a national islands plan to provide structure and clarity on setting objectives, monitoring and reviewing.

The key will be who is accountable.

I will finish my speech as I started, by quoting Willie Ross in the 1965 debate about the Highlands and Islands.

He said: “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” the “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 bill might find themselves involved in a date with history—being part of the history of Scotland.

All that we need, in the words of Sir Walter Scott, is the “will to do” and the “soul to dare.”


Text of speech made in the Scottish Parliament debate -24th. November 2016