David's speech on the Islands (Scotland) Bill

30 May 2018

As a Highlands and Islands member, I strongly support any and every political initiative to support, grow and develop our island communities.

I welcome today’s debate and thank the minister, my MSP colleagues and the councils, particularly those of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, for their tireless work on this endeavour.

I also welcome representatives of those councils to the public gallery.

There is nothing new in the argument at home and abroad about strengthening our island communities.

The minister will expect me to mention the 2016 Japanese act on remote islands and, if we go back in time, we have the Montgomery committee that reported in April 1984 and recommended consolidating, developing and extending the powers of island councils.

Other members have mentioned the key element of the Treaty of the European Union—the principle of subsidiarity—which means taking decisions in a localised and decentralised way.

The European Union has always had strong and consistent policies to give special attention to the specific characteristics of territories with serious and permanent handicaps, including islands.

That is why the development of structural funds was so important for our island communities.

The handicaps are well known to our islanders: limited and costly modes of transport; restricted and declining economic activity; and the fragility of markets and loss of young people.

However, some things have not changed.

A conference that was organised by Shetland Islands Council and the Committee of the Regions looked at the 2011 Euroislands study.

That analysed island communities across the EU, and many issues were debated and discussed, looking at common characteristics across the 28 nations.

It found that, by and large, islands have below-average connectivity, their gross domestic product is below the European average, economic convergence is slower, the number of job and career opportunities is low, and services there are of variable quality and high cost.

However, there has to be a counterweight to that, and the 2012 geographic specificities and development potentials in Europe survey concluded that islands have close-knit communities, high-value natural capital and the potential for renewable energies.

It also noted that islands experienced higher vulnerability to climate change through heightening sea levels and an increased likelihood of storms.

All of that comes together to mean that policies and laws affect island communities in a way that they do not affect anywhere else.

Although islands have some similarities with rural regions in general, the specificity and peripherality of islands mark them as different.

Because of that, it is important that we are not “territorially blind”, to use the words of the EU’s global Europe 2050 vision.

Much of the bill is to be celebrated.

It has good intentions, it is very high level, and it leaves much of the detail to be set out in regulations.

However, it is hard to determine what the work will look like in practice.

As Western Isles Council has argued in a letter to me, the acid test will be strong and effective island proofing.

That will be the mark of success of the bill, as well as of the future of our island communities.

How and when will an island communities impact assessment be required?

Real devolution means additional powers to island communities.

Will that happen with the bill? 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 perhaps onward to the community land and harbour trusts.

New powers also need strategic decision making in the planning, designing and commissioning of mainland-island ferry services, and the recognition of island status in the Scottish constitutional set-up.

Humza Yousaf: I agree with what the member says, but does he recognise that the Islands (Scotland) Bill is part of a suite of measures, taking into account the Crown Estate measures and the community empowerment legislation that have been taken forward, as well as the national islands plan that will be developed as a result of the bill?

David Stewart:

I intend to touch on that, and I agree with what the minister says.

Real devolution means public sector job relocation, as Jack McConnell did when he moved Scottish Natural Heritage’s headquarters from Edinburgh to Inverness.

How about moving the CalMac Ferries HQ to the Western Isles, the Scottish Crown Estate HQ to Orkney, or the Scottish Land Commission HQ to Shetland?

What about single public authority status for the health board, the local authority and Highlands and Islands Enterprise under one umbrella in each island authority?

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP): Will the member take an intervention?

David Stewart:

I am in the final minute of my speech.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: The member must close.

David :

I celebrate the fact that the bill has been brought forward, acknowledging the different and varying needs of island communities.

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step.

This bill is a first step, and it is to be welcomed.

I finish with the words of Sorley MacLean, who said:

“my tale is of the ethos of our island ebbed”.

Our islands have been ebbing for too long.

Now is the time to change that tale.

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