Just catching up with the news that the Scottish Government published its Islands Bill last Friday. This was probably a good day to bury bad news, given that much of the political establishment was focused elsewhere at the time, although there is no suggestion that the Islands Bill is is bad news. But the timing of its publication was awful.
The Bill is expressly the governmental response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign launched by the island councils elected by Shetland, Orkneys and Western Isles voters to establish a clearer constitutional recognition of the needs and status of island areas. The Bill – which builds on top of a consultation exercise undertaken in the last quarter of 2015 – will need to be carefully scrutinised as regards the extent to which it matches up to the aims of Our Islands Our Future as well as in terms of what it envisages actually happening in practice. At the headline level, it seeks to do the following:
– a duty on Scottish Ministers to publish a ‘National Islands Plan’ with a view to improving outcomes for island communities, alongside an annually-published Progress Report
– a duty on Scottish Ministers expressly to have regard to island communities in exercising their functions, including via an island communities impact assessment as a means of ‘island-proofing’ initiatives such that islanders are not disadvantaged as a result of their location
– protection for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constitutency akin to that already provided to the Shetlands and Orkneys constituencies such that the boundaries cannot be changed without primary legislation
– greater flexibility around councillor representation within island communities
– provision for all island authorities to have more control in the development of the seas around their communities via a marine licensing scheme for development activities.
Island communities continue to face major problems as regards – among many others – de-population, and the associated, but qualitatively different, problem of dealing with the needs, not least health, of an ageing society; the provision of affordable and suitable housing; and digital connectivity. Some of these issues are being taken forward, at least to some degree, such as the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initative, although improvements can always be made to any governmental programme both as regards provision and as regards pace.
The Islands Bill is not inherently a development-based one, but a policy and access one. Consequently, the solution to many of the development problems facing the islands – of jobs, incomes and sustainability – need to be tackled in other forums and by other initiatives, although I would have liked to see express recognition of the need to engage and work with community landlords – such as Storas Uibhist on South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, which has just celebrated ten years of community ownership of these islands – included formally in the Bill. Whether the Islands Bill turns out to make a difference to islanders’ lives in practice of course remains to be seen, but a legislative start has been made on creating greater voice and access for the islands to policy, and in red-circling that for the future. To the extent that this represents at least a signal of a reversal of the recent policy trend towards greater centralisation in the Scottish Government, the Bill is welcome. Practice needs to follow.