Thanks to Neil Gray for today’s guest post. Neil is an Orcadian, who for the last six years has worked in the Scottish Parliament for Alex Neil MSP. He is also active in the Yes campaign in West Lothian.
Regardless of the referendum result, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have guaranteed themselves greater recognition at a government level than ever before, thanks to the Our Islands Our Future campaign.
Last June the three island authorities saw an opportunity within the independence referendum conversation and formed a joint task force to lobby the Scottish and UK governments for enhanced decision making which would enrich island life. This week, with the publication of the Scottish Government’s proposals, that campaign won the proverbial watch with the promise of all Crown Estate revenues being returned to the isles should Scotland vote Yes in September.
That is the big prize for the isles in the 82-page Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities, but there are other proposals that will happen regardless of the referendum result.
However, clearly it is the Crown Estate pledge which is the most significant proposal for three very important reasons; the economy, the environment and for the politics of the referendum.
The Crown Estate controls the seabed out to 12 nautical miles as well as having significant land holdings and raises revenues from aquaculture, harbours, fishing and leasing the seabed for energy projects. It is notoriously difficult to extract figures from the organisation, but it is estimated that returning the aquaculture finance alone could be worth millions to the three local authorities. Regaining 100% control of that level of finance is a potentially massive windfall for the respective island economies given their growing renewables capacity. It will give Orkney and Shetland in particular an income stream bonus to allow them to plan and invest for life after oil. We have already seen some communities take stakes in renewables projects as a form of investment, with the returns being spent on community resources. Devolving the Crown Estate revenues will free up more capital for communities to invest in projects which can accrue further growth and provide greater scope for higher spending on public services. This will see our natural resources really work for the people. In remote and rural areas, where the delivery of public services can be a costly challenge, this could breathe new life into communities that heavily depend on them.
Providing cheaper, faster and more frequent transport and communications links would be obvious places to start. The Island Councils could also use the guaranteed revenue streams from the aquaculture and other developments already in place to do the UK government’s job for them and lay the much needed subsea grid interconnector.
By controlling the revenues from the seabed and Crown lands, the island communities will have an even greater vested interest in seeing the renewables sector boom. This draws obvious benefits, not just for our island groups, but for the whole of Scotland, as we strive to achieve our ambitious and world leading climate change targets. The Northern and Western Isles have massive potential for wind, wave and tidal power and we all have an interest in that taking off. With the European Marine Energy Centre based in Orkney giant strides are already being made into the commercialisation of marine renewables. The added impetus of controlling our own destiny and directing our resources for our own benefit, could be a game changing moment for this fledgling industry.
It is little wonder then that the Scottish Government’s proposals have been warmly welcomed by Cllrs Heddle, Robinson and Campbell, who have led the Our Islands Our Future campaign. Politically this could also be very significant in the referendum campaign. The reactions of the three constituency representatives for the Northern Isles – Liberal Democrats Liam McArthur, Tavish Scott and Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael – hint that they may have been outflanked and that the Crown Estate proposals will not be matched by the UK government. This is hugely significant as the Liberal Democrats have talked about the iniquity of the Crown Estate for time immemorial, but have allowed an SNP government to finally promise what their constituents have long desired. The line from the Liberals that this was a “referendum bribe” by the Scottish Government has not resonated, with one influential and politically unaligned Orcadian telling me it was not just weak, but “terrible” and that the last few days have been a “tour de force” for the First Minister as he “sliced the ground from under the unionist camp”. As a Yesser this is obviously welcome news to me, but these proposals were drawn together because devolving these powers is the right thing to do – by our islands and by Scotland.
It will be interesting to see what the UK government, which is due to publish its proposals soon, promises to deliver for our island communities if there is a No vote. What we do know is that the islanders have already embraced what this referendum campaign is about and started to look at what they want to see their communities looking like in the future. They already know that the Scottish Government will give them a far greater say even with a No vote. And while some islanders may not quite be ready to return a Yes majority, there is already a sense that decisions about their communities are best made by the people who live there. The decision islanders have on the 18th September is whether they can match the ambition the Scottish Government has for them, or whether after coming this far they retreat back from greater local decision making.