Island document hailed by council leaders – criticised by opposition
A prospectus for Scotland’s islands after independence, based on the Our Islands Our Future campaign, was launched by First Minister Alex Salmond in Kirkwall today.
Among the significant proposals for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles is that the islands should keep all monies currently taken for seabed rental by the Crown Estate. This could bring extra millions into the coffers of local authorities.
According to Mr Salmond island communities will have greater control over their local economies, natural environment and be represented at the heart of government in an independent Scotland.
Launching the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities prospectus, Mr Salmond outlined the “most comprehensive package of powers for the island communities”.
The post-independence proposals include:
• An Islands Act upon independence to make government decision making “island-proof”, and create a post of “Minister for Island Communities”;
• To support the establishment of Island Innovation Zones;
• To allocate 100 per cent of the net income from the islands’ sea bed leasing revenues to island communities ;
• To ensure Islands Councils’ representation on a new strategic energy committee;
• To develop a “planning brief” approach for aquaculture to underpin further development and growth of the sector;
• To ensure island communities have stronger representation in Europe.
In a joint statement with islands council leaders Mr Salmond said: “Today’s prospectus is the most comprehensive package for empowering Scotland’s island communities that has been put forward by any government. It recognises the unique contribution that island communities make to modern Scotland, and also the distinctive needs and priorities they have.
“Most of all, though, it recognises that Scotland’s islands have huge potential – a wealth of culture and history; stunning landscapes; massive renewable energy resources; and a host of successful businesses in sectors such as food and drink, life sciences and tourism.
“We are determined to work with the islands communities to unleash that potential and to create a sustainable and prosperous future. By doing so, we will honour the principles of subsidiarity and local decision-making at the heart of the Lerwick declaration. And even more importantly, we will help to build wealthier and fairer island communities, as part of a wealthier and fairer Scotland.”
SIC leader Gary Robinson said: “By implementing the measures … we can maximise the opportunities presented by fisheries and aquaculture, and realise the full potential of marine renewables, while protecting our pristine environment.
“Crown Estate powers and a share of the income generated from leasing agreements will allow us to support investment in our coastal communities and ensure that this has a lasting and sustainable impact. By strengthening and embedding the County Council Acts’ powers, each of the islands’ councils will be better able to manage the diverse and sometimes conflicting demands on the marine environment.”
Convener of Orkney Islands Council Steven Heddle said the document was a hugely significant milestone.
He added: “The Scottish government has clearly been willing to consider, negotiate and respond positively to the arguments we’ve made. The detailed response to the campaign published today represents a comprehensive commitment to islands in general and our island groups in particular.
“There is now a far greater understanding of the unique nature and needs of our island communities and that in itself bodes well for our future.”
Western Isles leader Angus Campbell dubbed it a historic day for island communities and said the interest the campaign had generated exceeded all expectation. He added that irrespective of the outcome of the independence referendum there was “much that can be achieved for Scotland’s islands”.
Following the launch, Liberal Democrat politicians denounced the paper as offering little and said that it could all be delivered without independence.
MSP Tavish Scott expressed “disappointment” at the lack of powers set to be restored and criticised the SNP for not doing more with the powers already at its disposal, accusing it of “holding issues hostage” in the run up to September’s referendum.
And he launched an attack on the proposals for the Air Discount Scheme, accusing the government of “hypocrisy”.
Mr Scott outlined a history of SNP “centralisation” over the last seven years.
He added: “The Islands councils have worked extremely hard to reverse this centralisation so it is very disappointing to see that only minimal responsibility will be returned to the isles should they back Alex Salmond’s push for independence.
“I recognise that the SIC has always argued that local government responsibilities should not be conditional on an SNP referendum bribe and it is a great shame that Alex Salmond failed to listen to that and has instead attempted to use the island councils for his political objective of independence.”
He said that he had set up the air discount scheme only for the “Nats” to exclude business travel unnecessarily, and said that only the SNP could have the “brass necked hypocrisy” to say that independence was necessary in order to reinstate it.
The people of Shetland would see through the Scottish government’s lies, he added.
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said the paper was an exercise in “political bribery” and added: “It will not be lost on most people in Orkney and in Shetland that the bulk of suggestions coming from the Scottish government are measures that could already be implemented.
“The Scottish government already has the power to do most of these things. In fact they have done the complete opposite for the last seven years.
“They now come, three months from a referendum, with promises of decentralisation in the event of an independence vote. This looks much like an exercise in political bribery”.
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur was also “disappointed” by the paper.
“Over two years ago Tavish Scott and I set out the compelling case for Orkney and Shetland to have a greater say in determining our islands’ future. At the time, these calls were rejected by the SNP, who dismissed us as ‘troublemakers’,” he said.
The Crown Estate issued a response to the proposals, saying in a statement that independence and the remit of The Crown Estate were matters for the Scottish people and government respectively.
“There are various ways in which local authorities can currently control and manage foreshore while benefitting from The Crown Estate’s expertise and, in some instances, capital investment. These include Local Management Agreements, long-term leases and direct ownership,” it said.
The Crown Estate manages leasing of the seabed for fish farming and offshore renewable and last year took revenue from Scottish aquaculture of £2.6 million with a further £0.6 million from offshore renewables.