Lesley Riddoch: SNP’s one-off incentives are not enough to solve island problems
SCOTLAND has an island depopulation problem but also a lot of people who want to live on the islands.
Go figure it out.
These islands have the best renewable energy resources in Northern Europe, but also the highest levels of energy poverty.
The Orkney Islands, Shetlands and Hebrides regularly feature in the top 10 places to live in the UK, but the Scottish government wants to give lucky 100 £ 50,000 each to live there.
Something is wrong with this picture.
Of course, conditions can get tough during long, dark winters. And even the best ferry service cannot handle a force-nine gale. But nature isn’t the main obstacle facing budding islanders – it’s a bunch of flawed systems.
READ MORE: Islanders awaiting £ 50,000 bonds to help fight population decline
And faulty systems can be undone by governments.
That’s why we elect them.
So why is this not happening?
There is clearly a demand for living on the islands – there is simply not a healthy supply of building land or warm, affordable homes for enterprising locals to create jobs, develop green energy systems. and give their distinctive cultures and languages a fighting chance to reach the next generation.
Of course, Westminster and not Holyrood is to blame for not connecting the islands to the mainland through submarine connectors. So even as we approach the COP26 summit, the UK’s most energy-rich regions are not actually connected to the national grid.
It’s a shame.
But most of the other issues are up to Holyrood to resolve.
Yet, faced with compelling evidence of market failure, the Scottish government has launched a public consultation on Island Bonds so that 100 lucky young people or families are given £ 50,000 each to live on Scottish islands facing depopulation over the next five years. Now, for sure, it will make a difference.
The islands deal in small numbers. So the arrival of a young couple or the decision to stay by people who can finally leave the caravans could make the difference between an island school remaining open or destined for closure.
And £ 50,000 could be the deposit on a house – but only if there is land to build on and houses that aren’t going for ridiculous money or are not converted into short-term rentals for them. tourists.
Sadly, these basic demands of a civilized society are still missing in rural Scotland, despite a Scottish government for almost a quarter of a century, led by the SNP for almost half.
What hundreds of thousands of people are waiting for – islanders, tenants, young people and families with rural ties – is not a £ 50,000 grant, although, of course, many will apply.
It is a bold intervention in the housing market by the Scottish government. It’s a real land reform to reduce prices and improve availability, a planning reform so that land is bought at agricultural value and not from the market, and a massive construction program stripped of the rigidity that pushes farm groups. urban style semi-rental in island “capitals” to islanders who want farmhouses. in the countryside, which they could partly build themselves. And they should do it.
Considering the shortage of island builders, with all available plots being seized by ‘fae sooth’ people – £ 50,000 can help buy a plot, but a house won’t be built any time soon.
Islanders are also waiting for someone to curb the massive growth in second homes and vacation rentals.
The Scottish government will no doubt claim that its short-term rental legislation comes to the rescue with a licensing regime that allows councils to create ‘control zones’ from April 2022 where a building permit is required to convert properties into short term rentals.
But the plan is optional and not compulsory.
There is widespread doubt that the Highland Council will bite the bullet and impose licensing regimes in any part of its vast territory, as half of Highland Councilors are involved in tourism or short-term rentals. And it’s not clear whether the Comhairle of Stornoway and the advice of Argyll and Bute, Orkney, or the Shetland Islands are more enthusiastic.
So the Airbnb Cavalry is unlikely to arrive anytime soon.
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THE Island Bond could also stoke understandable resentment among non-young people or others rejected for the £ 50,000 prize – and there will be many more losers than winners. Islands have relatively classless societies and depend on social cohesion. The Leap can inadvertently destabilize this.
What it certainly won’t do is overcome the enormous transportation challenges that have become the “new normal” for islanders.
Calmac’s aging ferry fleet was to be bolstered by two new hybrid ferries built by shipbuilders Ferguson Marine on the Clyde five years ago. But a bitter contract dispute means they’re overdue, double the original cost, and could possibly appear next winter.
So any ferry breakdown – and there have been many – means canceled crossings and huge disruption. Farmers cannot bring cattle to market; B&B owners have lost reservations; islanders can’t make it to mainland hospital appointments – it’s the kind of thing that makes island life impossible.
Meanwhile, the Scottish government’s insistence on 35% passenger capacity on Cal Mac ferries has been extremely unpopular. An interim ruling could have increased the number of passengers wearing face coverings and given island businesses a summer season. As it stands, ferries will return to near normal just in time for the return to schools and the end of the Scottish season.
The Scottish government has also come under fire for backing plans to remove well-paying air traffic checkpoints from the islands.
Over the weekend, union members working for Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) staged a day-long strike against plans to close island air traffic control towers and move jobs to Inverness. HIAL – 100% owned by Scottish ministers – says this is the only way to meet the new technical requirements.
But the union argues that upgrading every island airport would cost about the same price and keep “high-value skilled jobs in the economies. [the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles] who can ill afford to lose them ”. Prospect says only 5% of staff based outside Inverness are happy to move. Thus, the Scottish government could lay off up to 50 experienced employees from the island.
Edinburgh gives and Edinburgh takes.
Is the centralization plan really worth this level of economic and social misery? Prospect says ministers have refused to meet with island communities. In contrast, ministers at Westminster facing a revolt similar to the closure of island coastguards 10 years ago have come forward to face the music and have actually changed their minds.
Ironically, each air traffic control job on an island is worth around £ 50,000. The same amount as the Islands Bond, except these salaries will go to island economies every year – not once.
WHAT IS needed now is not a series of eye-catching documents.
It is the political courage to tackle the frightened cows.
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How to quickly free up land for housing?
Should landowners in the Outer Hebrides community give up their land so that young people can build their own homes?
Does the hard-won crofting system now stand in the way of a more equitable share of rural land?
A real debate is taking place now – on the Facebook pages.
As one islander observed: “Vast expanses of fertile land [croft] the land becomes unusable because no grazing, irrigation or maintenance is undertaken.
“The village I grew up in is a mass of kit houses owned by retirees and the cultivated land is being overrun with gorse.”
Where is it in the mainstream political debate?
If politicians don’t have the courage to tackle it – and they don’t – an island citizens’ assembly would give people the chance to find their own solutions. This is something that island councils working together could put in place very quickly.
Unless it’s easier to applaud the lucky winners of a £ 50,000 Bond and keep looking away.