The outcome of Shetland’s bid to continue to receive regional aid from the EU could have been different if a report highlighting the threat facing the future of rural communities was available at the time.
That is the view of the SIC’s political leader Gary Robinson following the release of a report highlighting the worrying chasm in living expenses between urban and rural areas.
The study – A Minimum Income Standard for Remote Rural Scotland – showed people living in rural communities need to earn up to 40 per cent more to achieve the same living standards as people in urban areas.
Attempts by Shetland Islands Council to have the isles recognised as being “on the periphery of the periphery” floundered last month.
New rules on regional aid meant Shetland was excluded from automatic classification as an assisted area, because its gross domestic product (GDP) was above the EU average – despite an argument at the time that the Commission’s rationale failed to take account of economic realities in the isles.
Mr Robinson says the outcome could have been different if the information contained in the report was available to the council during its intense lobbying campaign at all government-levels.
He hopes it may be used to help back subsequent arguments by the Scottish government for Shetland to receive the aid after all.
“My immediate thought was that it would have been quite useful to have had the information in black and white to have taken to the European Commission,” he said.
“It maybe would have been helpful in that respect. That is the kind of thing we would be able to use it for.
“Similarly there’s a review of local government spending at the moment as well and that [the report] is the kind of thing we could probably bring into play to argue our corner.”
Mr Robinson said the report, which was commissioned by a group of 10 public bodies and local authorities including the SIC, would help make people aware of the costs of living in island groups like Shetland.
The next step, he said, was to find ways of reducing those costs.
“I think we’ve all known for a while that everything is more expensive, [but] we’ve maybe not been able to quantify exactly how much by.
“Now we’ve got that kind of information. But I think the other thing has to be to actually try to minimise the cost difference between the islands and the mainland, for example.
“The whole concept of subsidiarity within the European Union is that there should be equal access and nobody should be disadvantaged.”
Asked if the report could be brought back to the Commission for Shetland’s case to be re-examined, he said: “I did get a letter on the back of the announcement from Nicola Sturgeon saying the Scottish government hadn’t given up and was going to continue to fight our corner.
“They were hoping they might be able to persuade the commission to look at Shetland as being contiguous with the rest of the Highlands and Islands. It [the report] could be helpful to any argument they make.”
Council convener Malcolm Bell welcomed the report’s findings.
“We have always known Shetland in common with elsewhere in rural Scotland has a high cost of living, although there are obvious benefits too. I welcome this report as, for the first time, it provides clear evidence of the problem and quantifies the cost.”
The report shows:
• That people in remote areas pay higher prices for many goods, including food, household items and clothing.
• That delivery charges for items ordered remotely add further to the cost of living.
• That households have to pay much more for home energy to get the same level of comfort as elsewhere in the UK.
It highlights household budgets which, including rent, rise from almost £320 per week for a single adult living in a remote mainland town to just under £672 for a couple with a family in an island settlement.
The study is critical of the range of welfare benefits, insisting the system fails to cover the cost of living in remote areas.
A single person on basic benefits has less than a third of what they require, it says.
A pensioner on the minimum pension credit falls by “considerably more” than ten per cent short if he or she lives in the most remote areas.
The report states: “This study has found that households in remote rural Scotland require significantly higher incomes to attain the same minimum living standard as those living elsewhere in the UK.
“This is partly due to the costs of additional travel, but mainly caused by the cost of buying the same things as elsewhere, and the extra cost of keeping warm.
“These high living costs threaten the sustainability of local communities by making it harder for people from a range of backgrounds and ages to live there at an acceptable standard.”
The shortfall in broadband coverage is also highlighted in the findings, which has long been a bugbear for many in the isles.
“Although the basic principles of what would meet people’s minimum needs for communication and technology were the same in rural and remote Scotland as elsewhere, the difference here was in the level of choice available in terms of service providers,” the report states.
“Participants said that they were limited to accessing broadband via BT and that Vodafone was the only mobile phone network that had sufficiently wide coverage.”
The report does point to benefits of living in rural communities, however.
It states people in isolated areas believe it important to participate in local, community-based and fund-raising activities.
It also states “social interventions” already prevent costs from being even higher.
These include free pensioner travel by bus and ferry, social housing that keeps rent and fuel bills down and free prescriptions and eye tests.