A New ministerial working group to look at further empowerment for island communities has been announced by the Scottish government.
The “Lerwick Declaration”, which was made during the Cabinet’s visit to the Shetland capital, pledged increased decision making for islanders within the framework of an independent Scotland.
Responding to the Our Islands – Our Future (Ar n-Eileanan – Ri teachd) campaign, and following discussions between senior representatives from the three islands councils and Local Government Minister Derek Mackay, a new forum will be established to look at the potential further devolution of powers for Scotland’s islands.
The ministerial working group will include representatives of the ‘Our Islands – Our Future’ campaign and explore opportunities to continue the decentralisation and further autonomy agenda that has been set by this Government.
Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles councils are lobbying for more local control over island shorelines and seabeds. Other powers sought include more control over transport.
Speaking after the Scottish Cabinet met in Shetland and discussed the issue, Finance Secretary John Swinney said:
“Scotland’s island communities are an invaluable source of energy, creativity and talent. They are made up of people with rich and diverse backgrounds who all contribute to making Scotland as a nation flourish. One of the great advantages of the independence debate is the opportunity to reflect on the sort of Scotland we wish to see.
“Shetland, Orkney and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have already taken a lead in doing that. Our Islands – Our Future is an important initiative which we discussed at Cabinet this morning and I am pleased to confirm that the Scottish Government has agreed in principle, jointly with campaign leaders from the three island authorities, to convene a new ministerial working group to consider the issues it raises.”
The declaration will be set out in a speech in Lerwick by the First Minister, Alex Salmond, in which he will say:
“We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future – the essence of self-determination, therefore we support subsidiarity and local decision making.
“It follows, therefore, that any government committed to that policy should listen to the views expressed across all of Scotland – as we are doing here in Lerwick and as we are doing in supporting greater community land ownership and the forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.”
Gary Robinson, Shetland Islands Council’s Leader welcomed the announcement:
“The Scottish Government announcement that they are prepared to set up a working group is most welcome. From the perspective of the three islands, this has to be seen as a positive development as we seek to get the best out of the change that will inevitably happen beyond the referendum in 2014.”
Councillor Steven Heddle, Convener of Orkney Islands Council, described the move as “positive” adding:
“We strongly believe in our arguments and the democratic principles that underlie them. The Ministerial Working Group is a very positive reaction from the Scottish Government, and our opportunity to convince the Government that our island communities can flourish and make a greater contribution to the country if we are suitably empowered.”
Angus Campbell, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said he believed the announcement was proof of the “detailed and professional case” the Island group had made, and added:
“It also opens up the opportunity for discussion on what can be embedded in future legislation to ensure the three island groups are given the tools to improve the well being of their areas and contribute more to national prosperity. We now look forward to a similar engagement with the UK Government.”
However, the announcement was criticised by Unionist politicians who attacked what they claimed was the SNP’s ‘centralist’ agenda.
Lib Dem MSP Tavish Scott, who represents Shetland, said: “The SNP Government says islands can have more power if they vote for independence. That’s not a real-world response to the legitimate point the island councils have been making.
“Nor does it address the sweeping centralisation that has been SNP Government policy for six years.”
Scottish Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie McGrigor accused the Scottish government of offering a “referendum bribe” and said: “If the Scottish Government is so keen on this idea, why not introduce it now?”