Scotland’s islands are being penalised for depopulation – Brian Wilson

Communities on the edge will keep declining unless the Government’s ‘Plan for Scotland’s Islands’ changes, writes Brian Wilson

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle in Kirkwall, Orkney. Picture: Jane Barlow
The Ring of Brodgar stone circle in Kirkwall, Orkney. Picture: Jane Barlow

In some respects, islands are no different – without a house and a job, you can’t live on them either at all or in any great comfort.

The Scottish Government has now provided us with “a plan” which is, of itself, as much use as an unfinished ferry, to be judged by how it eventually it eventually sails. The “National Plan for Scotland’s Islands” responds to a campaign by Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils for a better deal. It contains nothing particularly exceptionable though the subjects avoided are notable.

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Take local authority funding. The Western Isles council’s revenue grant from Edinburgh suffered by far the biggest cut in Scotland over five years, equivalent to £504 per head of population.

It takes a lot of platitudes about “island-proofing legislation” to compensate for that alone. The rationale for this cut is to reflect population fall. Yet it doesn’t take Einstein to see the logical flaw. Where does penalisation for depopulation end and The Plan kick in?

Collectively, Scotland’s islands pay their way handsomely. Shetland’s oil…a fair slug of whisky revenues… images on which Scotland’s tourism industry depends… the last bastions of a language Scotland supposedly values … I could go on and on.

All that offers a great creative opportunity for government to address islands’ challenges and recognise the vast disparities within them. Primarily, it is not an “islands plan” which is required but basic understanding of what peripherality means – whether island or mainland.

From an Edinburgh perspective, all islands are “peripheral” and that generalisation misinforms policy. For example, the Western Isles breaks into 36 “data zones” for statistical purposes. The latest figures show population decline in 29 while seven – all around Stornoway – had increases. This confirms that building up a centre is inevitably at the expense of its periphery. The Islands Plan ignores that crucial distinction.

In the area of Lewis where I live, there has been no family-sized social housing built for 40 years making it almost impossible for young families to stay or move in. The standard response is to build another field of houses on Stornoway’s outskirts because Government grant makes no distinction between locations, regardless of building costs. It does not need a Plan to sort that out – just a Minister with the gumption to change policy.

Yet what does The Plan say? “The approach to housing to 2040 and the implementation of the Plan will evolve from existing housing related initiatives, policies, strategies and actions”. Yet gods! By 2040 there will be nothing left here but holiday homes and AirB&B. It’s in 2020 that actions are required. Change is moving fast. The system of crofting regulation is now largely an empty shell while money dictates the market. If there are no lived-in houses, there are no families and no language. These issues are interlinked and cry out for integrated, urgent localised responses.

As I know from experience, the civil service resist the integration of action from Government agencies because it breaches their precious silos. So you end up with half a dozen bureaucracies managing the decline, from afar, of communities numbering a few hundred people.

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The conflict between “growth centres” and true periphery applies throughout rural Scotland. Boasting about increased Highland population disguises the relentless build-up of Inverness and its environs which sucks population and powers from the periphery. Until that mentality is reversed, communities on the edge will continue to decline.

There is nothing in The Plan which suggests lessons have been sought from other countries with islands. Notably, there is not a word about public sector job dispersal – which Norway has been practising as core philosophy for decades.

Devolve a dozen civil service jobs to 50 peripheral “data zones” – perfectly feasible in the digital age – ensure there are houses to live in and you would see instant results. That is within the powers and resources of the Scottish Government but requires vision to promulgate it.

They are awash with Ministers. So why not a Minister for Scotland’s Periphery? There might even be someone who cares enough about these places to make a difference.