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Bridges to the Future

Aidan Reid

Oh to be an islander?

The Islands (Scotland) Bill sets out to revitalise some of Scotland’s most remote communities. After nearly a year of scrutiny, debate, and fights over whether Shetland was going to get put back in its (map) box, the Bill has been passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. The level of support reflected its clear-sighted intention: to rachet up the support and consideration policy makers pay to island communities.

While ‘only’ 2% of Scots live in these locations, their remoteness and beauty has attracted travellers and locals for many years. They are also the areas most likely to rely on tourism, with local authorities containing islands having a higher GDP generated by tourism-based businesses compared to the rest of Scotland.

Yet for decades island communities have suffered from a combination of economic and social factors which have seen many fall into decline. The rise of cheap flights to sunnier climes and the shift from manual and outdoor industries to office-based work in urban settings has left them generally behind the curve.

Efforts are being made to change this dynamic. The Bill seeks to fundamentally alter the way policy makers consider islands when legislating by introducing special impact assessments. Based on the template offered by their equalities equivalent, assessments will be carried out for all current and future legislation after the Bill receives Royal Assent. From the South of Scotland Enterprise Agency to local authorities investing in transport links, all these polices will be tested for their potential implications for island communities. While this might not be significant investment in these communities, the objective is a gradual and sustained effort across government to enable islands to flourish.

The National Island Plan, which is expected during the next parliamentary session, will outline a number of actions the Scottish Government will take to reinvigorate island communities, as well as providing outcomes by which to measure their success. Annual progress reports are also expected, providing a continued basis for scrutiny and reducing the likelihood of an initial burst of activity failing to be sustained. Additional local plans have also been suggested and these would see individual communities receive specialised support.

It is fair to suggest the Bill has potential. While there have been concerns throughout its scrutiny about whether it has sufficient teeth, the Bill has unanimous support across the political spectrum. Its twin-pronged approach of incremental change through ensuring greater accountability of policies for island communities and direct actions through the Islands Plan would appear to offer the chance to deliver both immediate wins and more gradual longer-term changes to how islands are viewed as places to live and work. What can also be said for sure is that the 93 inhabited islands in Scotland are counting on this Bill to lead to an overhaul in how their communities develop. Whether it does so remains to be seen.

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