Scotland's island councils set to win new powers

A bill handing more powers to Scotland's three island councils is expected to pass through the Scottish Parliament in May following a four year campaign for greater recognition of remote communities.

Boats moored at Stornoway harbour on the Isle of Lewis. The towns local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean, hopes to win more powers from Holyrood and Westminster. Picture: Jane Barlow/TSPL

Local authority leaders in Shetland, Orkney and Comhairle nan Eilean Sia expect the legislation to formalise the introduction of “island proofing”, which will require ministers to take into account their particular circumstances when introducing legislation at Holyrood.

The Islands Bill is also likely to include a provision for a National Islands Plan, which will offer legal protection to the island constituencies at the Scottish Parliament, as well as an option to introduce two or even one member wards at local authority level, as opposed to the current three or four member wards.

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Further devolution could feature so-called “island deals” - similar to the City Deals offered by the Westminster Government to urban areas across the UK which free up central funds for infrastructure projects.

The bill, which islands minister Humza Yousaf announced in August would be introduced at Holyrood in the current Scottish Parliamentary year, follows a joint campaign launched by the three islands councils in June 2013.

Our Islands Our Future (OIOF) set out their vision for a stronger future following the independence referendum in 2014, regardless of the result.

“The campaign is very much ongoing and the islands’ authorities continue to work with both the Scottish and UK Governments to empower our communities,” Comhairle nan Eilean Sia leader Angus Campbell told The Scotsman.

“Further devolution of powers such as the ability to vary non-domestic rates would give us the opportunity to use economic levers for the benefit of island communities.

“The OIOF campaign is particularly keen that power over the seabed is transferred to coastal communities from the Crown Estate - as recommended by the Smith Commission.”

Scotland’s three island councils cover a vast geographical territory stretching from the Out Stack on Shetland to the southern tip of the Barra isles in the Outer Hebrides.

Despite their size, the local authorities are home to around 72,000 people - just 1.5 per cent of the population in Scotland.

Their remoteness - it’s often-repeated that Lerwick is closer to Oslo than London - means their vital contribution to both the Scottish and UK economy can be overlooked.

The seas around Shetland are home to vast oil and gas reserves. The new Laggan and Tormore fields discovered last year have the potential supply 100 per cent of Scotland’s gas needs, industry analysts have suggested.

In total, the two new fields, which have a lifespan of 20 years, will produce about 8% of the UK’s gas needs.

This wealth, amid on-going discussions over governance, has led to some Shetlanders to question whether it’s in their economic interest to remain a humble local authority area within a devolved Scotland and the wider UK.

Wir Shetland, which held its inaugural meeting in October 2015, argues the archipelago would be better served by becoming a British overseas territory - similar to the status of the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar.

“Many people in Shetland are disillusioned at how we are being governed,” said Duncan Simpson, membership secretary of Wir Shetland.

“There is no singular reason for the growing support for Wir Shetland, there is a multitude. Ranging from, but not excluded to, the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy, underfunding of Shetland’s education system and increasing centralisation.”

Islands Minister Humza Yousaf said: “I am determined to ensure the unique nature and needs of our island communities are championed at the heart of government, a commitment reinforced by our pledge in last year’s Programme for Government to bring forward an Islands Bill.

“This bill will seek to improve the outcomes for our island communities by putting in place a framework of measures that recognises the unique challenges they face.”