June 12, 2019
Post-it or progress?
Island communities are well rehearsed in identifying the big issues that need to be addressed in order to make life less of a perpetual struggle. The thousands of post-it stickers and flip chart sheets consumed over the years stand testament to that. So their willingness to keep engaging is either a measure of islander optimism or some new found conviction that finally, with the Islands (Scotland) Act on the statute books, this latest foray (63 events on 46 islands in 12 weeks) by a civil servant team is not just another post-it paper exercise.
Sixty-three events on forty-six islands in twelve weeks is the challenge which Erica Clarkson has set herself for Scottish Government’s consultation programme for the National Islands Plan and islands communities impact assessment guidance. Erica, the Islands Lead on the Scottish Government’s Islands Team, is averaging four islands a week on an odyssey that demands a military level of planning coupled with boundless enthusiasm. It’s a punishing schedule, but Erica is someone who runs ultra-marathons in her leisure time, so we can have every confidence that her stamina will be up to the task.
Support with the logistics of the operation is being provided by the Scottish Islands Federation, while specialist help with the research has been commissioned from the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance. Co-director of the Centre, Dr Francesco Sindico, and researcher Nicola Crook are accompanying Erica on her travels, and a full listing of all the scheduled consultation events can be found on their website.
Under the terms of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, Scottish ministers are duty bound to lodge a draft National Island Plan before the Scottish Parliament within a calendar year of the enactment of the Act, giving a deadline of 4 October 2019. The purpose of preparing a National Islands Plan, according to the Act, is “is to set out the main objectives and strategy of the Scottish Ministers in relation to improving outcomes for island communities that result from, or are contributed to by, the carrying out of functions of a public nature.” The Act is specific about the consultation process itself, stating that it must “have regard to the distinctive geographical, natural heritage and cultural characteristics (including the linguistic heritage) of each of the areas inhabited by island communities”. Scottish Ministers are required to consult:
1. each local authority listed in the schedule,
2. such other persons as they consider represent the interests of island communities, and
3. such persons (including members of island communities and other persons) as they consider likely to be affected by or have an interest in the proposals contained in the plan.
The consultation exercise is focusing on two elements of the Act: the National Islands Plan itself, and the requirement that Scottish Government, local authorities and relevant authorities undertake Island Communities Impact Assessment (ICIA). The purpose of ICIA is to “island proof” legislation, policy, strategies and services where any of those are considered likely to have an effect on an island community which is significantly different from its effect on other communities. ICIA will ensure that the specific perspectives and concerns of those who live in island communities have been taken into account. Guidance on island impact assessment will be laid before Parliament in the autumn, alongside the National Islands Plan.
The process was launched formally on Canna on 7 April by the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse MSP. An account of the ceremony can be found on the Scottish Rural Network’s website, along with a short video by the Minister which is played to start off each event. Canna, with a population of around a dozen, is one of the smallest islands on Erica’s itinerary. I had to check the map to see where it was, which inspired me to track the whole route.
Join the dots – the National Islands Plan consultation programme
I caught up with Erica and her team on the island of Sanday, island number 11 and one of Orkney’s north isles with a population of around 500. Sanday was the third of the Orkney events, following visits to Westray (9) and North Ronaldsay (10) earlier in the week. Orkney will benefit from a second visit in the first week of July, taking in Kirkwall and Stromness on the Orkney mainland (35), along with the islands of Hoy (36), Stronsay (37), Egilsay (38) and Wyre (39). This will be the final week of the official consultation period, which closes on 6 July. Visits to Foula (45) and Fairisle (46) had yet to be scheduled when we met but will surely be fitted in somehow, even if this might have to be later in July.
Sanday’s meeting was held in Heilsa Fjold, a modern community centre in the middle of the island. The turnout of 17 was respectable for a beautiful spring evening at only a week’s notice. North Ronaldsay had done proportionately better the night before, with its 15 attendees being around half the island’s population. Preamble was kept to a minimum, with the team noting that the National Islands Plan was a first for Scotland, and many other islands around the world were watching with interest to see how it went. While the plan would be national, the aim was to make it meaningful for every island. They were all different, with their own concerns and priorities, which the consultation would attempt to capture.
It was a little disappointing to hear the overused cliché that this consultation would be “different”, given that it quickly took on the familiar form of small groups coming up with lists of issues to be posted up on the wall. What was great about being, living and working on Sanday? What would make it even better? Unsurprisingly, economic development, digital connectivity, health, environment and transport were on everybody’s lists – unsurprisingly, because the islands have been consulted repeatedly in recent years to inform a host of other plans with very similar results. The Local Outcomes Improvement Plan, the Locality Plan, the Council Plan, not to mention the indigenous Sanday Plan itself: it was hard to escape the feeling that much of this effort was being expended on reinventing the wheel, not least because a very similar list of priorities had already been identified through last year’s consultation on the Islands Bill and was to be found in Section 3 of the Act.
The team was challenged robustly from the floor on this point and also asked why the consultation was not being conducted through the democratic framework already present in the isles, given that Orkney in particular has a famously strong community council structure. The answer given was that local councils and community councils had already responded to the preliminary consultation and would doubtless do so again with regard to the present one, but the Act specifically required consultation with individual members of island communities in addition to their representative bodies. A strong evidence base “from Arran to Unst” would add credibility to the plan. As for “the list”, it was never intended to be exclusive and there was scope to add to it, depending on the outcome of the consultation.
A final point was the need to avoid confusing “rurality” with “insularity”: many islands have issues in common with the more remote parts of mainland Scotland but insularity presents distinctive challenges on which the plan should be sure to stay clearly sighted. This was as close as we got to the subject of ICIA, which was probably too technical for a community meeting but will certainly be a key issue for the islands councils in responding to the consultation.
Unusually, Scottish Government decided to pre-empt the ICIA guidance by conducting an Islands Impact Assessment on the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill, currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament. The decision acknowledged the crucial importance of fuel poverty on the islands. Concerns raised by island communities included the island uplift to the Minimum Income Standard, part of the proposed definition of fuel poverty, and how this reflected their experience on the ground. In addition, they called for flexibility around the delivery of funding schemes in island communities in order to exploit their unique circumstances, as well as recognising their challenges. The exercise identified a number of necessary mitigating actions that will support Scottish Government’s aim of reducing fuel poverty within island communities. All in all it was a promising dry run and Scottish Government is to be commended for getting in early on ICIA.
While the rationale for the islands tour has been made clear, the consultation events are really only gathering information that is already well known to local authorities and documented in their Local Outcomes Improvement Plans. By far the more significant part of the National Islands Plan will be Scottish Government’s commitments in support of local aspirations. Transport, digital connectivity and economic development all need a concerted and co-ordinated national programme to deliver transformational change, backed by serious investment. The National Islands Plan could be the instrument of change, but time is short if a meaningful plan is to be written and delivered by the autumn. None of the key messages are likely to be affected by the findings of the islands tour. While embarked upon with the best of intentions, it might yet prove to be a sideshow to the essential business in hand.
As soon as she has lodged the Plan, Erica will be embarking on her next challenge – running twelve 50km ultra-marathons in twelve days in support of Wellbeing of Women menopause research. In her sights are two Guinness world records for the number of marathons and number of ultra-marathons run on successive days. It could be that the team has already set a record for the number of Scottish islands visited in twelve weeks but, record or not, this odyssey deserves recognition as the most dedicated commitment to a consultation exercise we have seen in a long time.