Dubious feast awaiting? (John Tulloch)
Our Islands, Our Future (OIOF), originally created to campaign for significant local powers for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles councils, has reportedly been absorbed into the new, larger “islands strategic group” with three mainland councils (North Ayrshire, Highland and Argyll and Bute), to hammer out details of the forthcoming Scottish Islands Bill.
The total population of the original three OIOF island groups is about 70,000 whereas the new group, including the remaining islands, comprises half a million people, 80 per cent of whom live on the Scottish mainland.
Transport and islands minister Humza Yousaf says the group’s purpose is: “… the development of a national islands plan … to further empower Scottish islands … tailored specifically by those most affected … [accounting for the] … challenges … and opportunities of island life”?
Okay. But what do 400,000 mainland residents have to do with it?
And what does it mean for OIOF? Will local powers be “tailored” to different islands or will Shetland receive the same treatment as Tiree, or Colonsay?
If the Islands Bill is intended to deliver meaningful local powers to the OIOF councils in an untailored “one size fits all” way, the three mainland councils must be prepared to negotiate devolution of their own existing powers, along with other powers that they themselves will never enjoy, to both “their islands” and the OIOF councils. That is a big ask.
Such relatively large, powerful councils are unlikely to agree to a joint approach that disadvantages them. Unless they actually want rid of their islands (also unlikely) they will not willingly negotiate away powers at their own expense.
This presents a major problem for OIOF. If the Scottish government’s standard “one size fits all” approach prevails, Shetland will gain nothing of value from the Islands Bill and OIOF will be stuck fast in the process, pinioned by the deadweight of these elephantine mainland councils. Unable to progress, they cannot even escape, lest they lose out on such crumbs as may fall from the Bill.
Once the associated legislation has been passed that will be it. Future discussions will be channeled via this Islands Strategic Group, in which Shetland’s interests will serve merely to season the great soup of Hebridean and west coast politics.
Interestingly, the Wir Shetland submission (I hold no office) to the first consultation, last December, pointed out the irrelevance of the Islands Bill to Shetland’s needs. The submission stated: “The Islands Bill consultation is a Scottish Government initiative in response to the demands of the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ (OIOF) island councils campaign which, by attempting to seek a ‘one size fits all’ solution for all Scottish islands, dilutes the special circumstances on which the OIOF campaign is predicated thus blunting and cushioning the impact of its arguments.”
Any other approach like, say, tailoring powers to recipients, or creating another island council for the Inner Hebrides, will require protracted consultations, negotiations and legislation – “Clink, clink, clank,” will go the OIOF can, kicked ever further down the road by Humza Yousaf.
However, the spectre at this dubious feast that no-one dares mention, is the potential creation of a national islands authority to administer the national islands plan, into which the SIC, OIC and CNES (Western Isles) will disappear, replaced by offices in Inverness, Oban and ironically, Largs.
Welcome to the Hotel Dalriada, Gary Robinson … you can check out but you can never leave!