Over the course of this last year, we have continued to engage positively with both UK and Scottish Government. Examples of topics discussed include energy, transport, digital connectivity and winter resilience when thousands of homes were without power during an exceptional period of wintry weather in December.
We will continue to engage both Governments to promote our Islands Deal projects and ensure they are funded and delivered with sufficient pace.
The Islands Deal and signing the Full Deal Agreement at the start of this year has been one of many significant achievements , and I was delighted to meet with my counterparts in Orkney, together with Scottish and UK Government ministers, to mark that occasion. I look forward to seeing how this programme of work develops over the next year as some of our projects enter into their delivery phases.
In line with the motion passed at the Shetland Islands Council meeting on 9 September 2020, we will continue to explore options for achieving financial and political self-determination.
The European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament almost three years ago. The Bill was unanimously passed a year later by that Parliament but the UK Supreme Court “ruled that some of the things this Bill sets out to do are not within the powers of the Scottish Parliament. Because of this, the Bill cannot become law in its current form.”
Through COSLA, we have continued to support the Bill and pushed for progress on bringing forward an amended version.
Work will continue locally over this next year to make sure Shetland can reach and maintain its full potential in pursuit of the Our Ambition aim.
We will continue to engage with the Scottish Government to ensure they deliver the positive outcomes in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 and National Islands Plan.
We continue to engage with Scottish Government around the delivery of the National Islands Plan, a plan set out in the passing of the Islands (Scotland) Act. Since then, I have engaged in the Islands Strategic Group alongside our Chief Executive, which is chaired by Mairi Gougeon, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands. Officers from our council also take part in a National Islands Plan Delivery Group. Progress has been reported on by Scottish Government recently.
Securing full and fair funding for Shetland’s internal ferries remains a high priority for this council and one which is becoming a test of the Scottish Government’s commitment to positive transport outcomes set out in the Islands Act and the principle of fairness contained in the National Islands Plan. We will continue to pursue this until resolved.
As you will read in the ‘Transport’ section of this year’s progress report, we heard from the UK Government that we had successfully attracted £27 million for a new roll-on roll-off ferry for Fair Isle from its Levelling Up Fund. At the time, I noted that “It is no exaggeration to say that this funding from the UK Government has saved Fair Isle as an inhabited island”.
Almost a month later, in February this year, we heard from the Scottish Government that they would fill the revenue gap of almost £6 million required to run Shetland’s inter-island ferries. I highlighted how our ferries “are a lifeline in the truest sense of the word, and the key to unlocking economic success not just for Shetland, but for all of Scotland.”
This was extremely welcome news ahead of us setting our budget, where we are facing some very significant financial challenges in the coming years. Also appreciated was the letter from then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney MSP, expressing a wish to have discussions with us about replacing our inter-island ferries. A task force will now be set up to take this forward, and I welcome this opportunity to reflect on the future of these routes, either via replacement vessels or tunnels.
We will campaign to ensure that regulations and arrangements allow Shetland-generated green energy to be made available to Shetland consumers and industries at affordable prices to close the current energy affordability gap.
Last summer, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer setting out stark predictions for household energy costs for those living in Shetland.
Statistics show that, even under normal circumstances, the cost of living in Shetland is anything from 20-65% higher than the UK average. Shetland’s significantly colder climate, coupled with the risk of poor insulation and lack of availability of cheaper energy options – for example, mains gas – further compound the effects on its island communities of the cost of living crisis.
At that time, I reflected on the fact that our islands have been at the heart of oil and gas activity for over forty years, yet our people have not seen the benefits of that in terms of a lower cost of fuel. How Shetland has contributed, and will continue to contribute, significantly to UK energy exports, and yet, ironically, people in our communities could struggle to heat their homes in the coming year.
In December last year, we approved a set of ‘Energy Development Principles’ that will now be promoted to all existing and prospective energy developers, to UK and Scottish Government, and others. These principles include provision for a community benefit package noting that any arrangement would have to include some viable mechanism to allow energy benefits to be realised by local households and businesses, to combat fuel poverty and improve energy affordability.
As I mentioned at the start of this piece, we have developed very positive relationships within Scottish and UK Government and we continue to engage with both to secure the best results for Shetland. This can and will take time, but putting in the effort and continuing those conversations can and will yield positive results.
Councillor Emma Macdonald