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Putting Scotland's Islands on the Map

Callum Macdonald

· islands politics

One of the most memorable contributions to the Islands Bill consultation was the assertion that “nobody puts Shetland in a box”. The campaign successfully lobbied for a requirement on public authorities to accurately and proportionately represent the Isles’ geographic location in relation to the rest of Scotland, rather than in a square off the north-west coast of Aberdeenshire. Campaigners argued the distorted maps have tangible implications, as the logistics of getting to and from Shetland are often forgotten, negatively affecting sectors such as oil & gas and seafood, and consequently the islands’ economy. The new mapping requirement is also symbolic of the legislation generally, as it prevents the islands from being treated as an inconvenient afterthought, forced to accommodate themselves to whatever suits the rest of Scotland. It should not be misinterpreted as affording special treatment, but rather about achieving equity and ensuring the islands are not unreasonably disadvantaged.

The phrase used in evidence sessions and consultations for this approach is ‘island-proofing’. Ministers and public bodies will be compelled to carry out impact assessments when preparing legislation, strategies or services to ascertain their effect on the islands, and consult island communities before making any changes. Retrospective island-proofing can also be requested by local authorities if they believe legislation has adversely affected them.

Here are some examples of different policy areas where island-proofing has been or could be used effectively:

Transport

Some MSPs felt the Islands Act might be limited in ensuring transport links to islands would be improved, due to the inability to force commercial operators to island-proof their decisions. However, the Government has insisted the procurement of these services will be subject to island-proofing. Consideration of the Transport (Scotland) Bill presents an early opportunity for island-proofing to be applied in an area of fundamental importance to the daily lives of islanders. The Transport Bill could give councils greater influence through public-private partnerships in how local services should be run, such as the ability to run essential, non-profitable bus routes and better integrate them with ferry timetables. Some political parties and unions have a Pooled Fares System for branch events to help delegates traveling considerable distances and incurring high expenses. A proposal that the SNP adopts such a scheme is on the long list of proposed resolutions for the party’s conference in October.

Education & Skills

The Attainment Scotland Fund has been criticised for neglecting the islands because of the metric used to calculate allocations. The level of funding awarded to local authorities to support pupils facing deprivation is determined by the number of free school meals, which critics claim does not reliably account for the level of rural and island deprivation. Orkney and Shetland have historically low-levels of free school meal take-up, which island MSPs say gives a misleading impression of the real level of poverty. While islanders are not alone in advocating for a more nuanced metric to help account for the “hidden poor”, statutory island-proofing could be used as the trigger for a change in approach. For inspiration, policy-makers might look to the Pupil Deprivation Grant in Wales, where, rather than allocating funding to local authorities, awards are made to schools on a ‘per pupil’ basis. A similar objection has been made to the mechanism used to identify students from deprived backgrounds for university clearing places. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) is sometimes described as a “blunt instrument” because it fails to account for young people from low income households who do not live in an SIMD 20 postcode. Shetland, for instance, has no SIMD 20 areas but in 2016 had 400 children living in poverty.

To be successful, island-proofing requires initiative and receptiveness on both sides. Mark Boden, then Chief Executive of Shetland Council, offered an example at the Rural Economy & Connectivity Committee last October. He recalled proposed changes by Skills Development Scotland (SDS) to the funding of travel for Modern Apprentices. After the Council alerted SDS that this would inadvertently make it very difficult for Shetland-based apprentices to access training, SDS responded by reinstating appropriate payments before the new system was introduced.

Social security

Proponents of island-proofing have stressed that sharing new plans at an early stage can help avoid the process being expensive or labour-intensive. The islands screening assessment for the Social Security (Scotland) Act was warmly welcomed as a good model by island councils and led to no extra costs. It identified practices that could help islanders in the new system, such as video conferencing to improve accessibility, with face-to-face assessments using digital technology. Higher fuel poverty rates, due to cooler climates, were also highlighted, and this contributed to the Social Security (Scotland) Act’s inclusion of assistance grants to individuals during periods of cold weather and the winter months. The Act also places a duty on the Scottish Ministers to publish an annual report on the performance of the social security system, which will include information on the impact of island-proofing.

Housing

Combatting depopulation is a perennial challenge for island communities. Along with broadband and improved mobile phone coverage, better access to housing is the biggest incentive for young people to remain in or return to their communities. Access to housing to buy, or even rent, is limited, and the problem is particularly acute in the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. In addition, housing construction on the Scottish islands can be more difficult than in many mainland or central belt areas due to issues such as transportation costs and distances, regularity of ferries, weather, availability of workforce, and accommodation. On some islands, the cost of building can be up to 30% higher than mainland projects. To address some of these challenges, the Scottish Government launched a £5m Islands Housing Fund to build or refurbish properties. Applicants can be community organisations, development trusts, private landowners or developers and traditional housing providers. New buildings and refurbishment of existing buildings. Such commitments are of course welcome, but island-proofing a nation-wide housing policy will be essential to build upon these positive measures.

One of the world’s first place-based laws, the Islands (Scotland) Act was welcomed across the political spectrum as a potentially landmark moment in the history of the Hebrides and Northern Isles. If the legislation is to live up to its promise, island-proofing must avoid becoming just a tick-box exercise or political buzzword, and lead to genuine and lasting change for island communities.

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