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June 4, 2008

Rising prices hits remote communities hardest

In some of our most remote communities, the margins that allow people to make a living are becoming increasingly narrow. The community on the beautiful island of Colonsay are witnessing a serious decline in population as a direct result of these pressures. With a population standing at just over one hundred, a further nine have left the island this year. The island is now offering hefty financial incentives in a bid to reverse this trend

The Observer

At first glance the island of Colonsay, with its miles of deserted sands, heather covered moorland and freshwater lochs, resounding with the calls of cuckoos and corncrakes, would appear far removed from the stresses of modern life.

However, the soaring cost of oil, along with an ageing population and an abundance of holiday homes, is threatening to devastate this rural sanctuary. In the last year nine people have either left or announced their intention to leave the island, which once boasted more than 1,000 inhabitants, but now has just 108. In a bid to stave off extinction, Colonsay is seeking to attract new blood.

Five plots of crofting land, with planning permission and a grant of up to £40,000 towards building a house, are being offered to anyone willing to move to the island off the west coast of Scotland and set up home permanently.

Recent legislation has broadened the definition of crofting from agriculture to include any viable business venture so the islanders hope that people with internet businesses or established home workers will consider relocating. ‘We want resourceful, independent, well-motivated people,’ said Andrew Abrahams of the island’s Community Development Company. ‘We want people who will fit into the community and make this their home… but we are not looking for just anybody.

‘Applicants will have to submit a business plan and they need to be people who can integrate with the community. It’s not easy living on an island. People think they can come and enjoy isolation, but in a small community it’s like living in a goldfish bowl. You have to muck in.’

Colonsay has the dubious honour of paying the highest fuel prices of anywhere in the UK and, together with increased freight charges adding up to £15 for the delivery of a single box of groceries from the mainland, many families are beginning to struggle.

‘It costs 30p extra just to get a loaf of bread delivered to the island,’ said Mike McNicholl, who runs the island’s only food shop and its not-for-profit community petrol pump, charging £1.50 for a litre of diesel and £1.36 for petrol. ‘Everything is dearer here than on the mainland because it costs so much to bring it in on the ferry. This is a wonderful island, but the high cost of freight is starting to bite and if visitors, who are the lifeblood of this island, stopped coming because of the fuel costs it would have a devastating effect on the community.’

The only thing keeping the island from becoming a ghost town, according to Diane Clark, Colonsay’s Island Registrar, is the influx of wealthy retirees, who come to the island where trusting residents leave their doors unlocked.

As one of the most remote communities in Britain, Colonsay, which was first settled more than 6,000 years ago, has a primary school with only nine pupils and three pre-school children, one hotel, a shop and post office. Reliant on the ferry five times a week in summer, and three times in winter, from the mainland port of Oban, the islanders can go days without supplies if the weather gets too bad. Tourism is a mainstay of the economy and there is a proliferation of holiday cottages across the island which covers an area just 10 miles long and two miles wide.

‘A big part of the problem for younger residents on the island is that work tends to be part-time and poorly paid, while the cost of living is higher than anywhere else in the country,’ Clark said. ‘The only reason people use the filling station on the island is because they have no choice. It’s not like you can take your car to the mainland to fill it up because it would cost about £100 for a return ticket. There’s a huge surcharge on every tanker that comes in, caused by the fact that freight charges are so high and we are not part of the proposed RET set.’

The Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) involves setting ferry fares on the basis of the cost of travelling an equivalent distance by road. The plight of Colonsay, whose name is derived from the Old Norse for Columba’s Isle, reflects the significant challenges Scotland’s rural communities and island dwellers are facing over rising fuel costs.

‘The price of fuel is ridiculous. We pay the highest prices in the UK because it costs so much to get the stuff here,’ said Angus McPhee, chairman of the Community Council, who likes to live up to his reputation as Angry Angus. ‘We need fresh blood or we’ll die. We need subsidies on the freight. Colonsay is going to be St Kilda, the sequel, unless something is done.’

The Scottish Parliament is under pressure to make allowances for remote communities and Duncan MacIntyre, the chairman of the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (Hitrans), has written to Alastair Darling, the Chancellor, asking for help for island dwellers. ‘Coll and Tiree are included in the proposed pilot scheme for RET, but we would like to see that extended to all the islands – especially in Orkney and Shetland, where costs are becoming so acute that it will have a very serious effect on the economy,’ said MacIntyre, who is also a councillor for Oban North and Lorne.

Iain Gillies, chairman of the Scottish Islands Federation, has called for Darling to change policies that discriminate against rural workers by lowering fuel excise duty for island dwellers. ‘It seems the Chancellor is hellbent on punishing people on the school run in London who drive 4x4s, which is fair enough,’ he said.

‘The problem is that people on the islands run around in 4×4 pickups for their work; they use more diesel than a family saloon but they are a necessity of trade. As it stands these people are being hammered for tax and VAT while the cost of fuel rockets.

‘Everything is stacking up against rural communities. Farmers are having a torrid time filling their tractors, as are fishermen with their marine vehicles. It seems the islands have been forgotten in economic policies designed to have an effect on people in cities.’