Convention of the Highlands and Islands minutes: November 2023

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 27 November 2023.

Attendees and apologies

  • Mike Andrews, Scottish Government
  • Bill Barron, Crofting Commission
  • Stuart Black, Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Raymond Bremner, The Highland Council
  • Sandy Bremner, Cairngorms National Park Authority
  • Lisa Bullen, Scottish Government
  • Roddy Burns, Moray Council
  • Malcolm Burr, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • Neil Cameron, Moray Council (Observer)
  • Rona Campbell, Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Mike Cantlay, Scottish Funding Council
  • Robin  Currie, Argyll and Bute Council
  • Rachael Darroch, Scottish Government
  • Alistair Dodds, Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Pippa Gardner, Scottish Government
  • Jim Grant, Moray Council
  • Lorna Gregson-MacLeod, Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Craig Hatton, North Ayrshire Council
  • Alan Hill, North Ayrshire Council
  • Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Government
  • Jacqueline Knox, Scottish Government
  • Kate Lackie, The Highland Council
  • Bill Lobban, The Highland Council
  • Emma Macdonald, Shetland Islands Council
  • Roddy Macdonald, Transport Scotland
  • Karen MacKinnon, Scottish Government
  • Aoife Martin, NatureScot
  • Mary McAllan, Scottish Government
  • Robert McGhee, Scottish Government
  • Euan McVicar, Crown Estate Scotland
  • Pippa Milne, Argyll and Bute Council
  • Frank Mitchell, Skills Development Scotland
  • Ross Moreland, Argyll and Bute Council
  • Neil Murray, Scottish Forestry
  • Vicki Nairn, University of Highlands & Islands
  • Graham Neville, NatureScot
  • Màiri NicAonghais, Bòrd na Gàidhlig
  • Frances Pacitti, Scottish Government
  • Oliver Reid, Orkney Islands Council
  • Kathleen Robertson, Moray Council
  • Ranald Robertson, HITRANS
  • Gary Robinson, NHS Shetland
  • Shona Robison Scottish Government
  • Maggie Sandison, Shetland Islands Council
  • Stephen Sheridan, Skills Development Scotland
  • Jason Short, Scottish Government
  • Paul Steele, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • James Stockan, Orkney Islands Council
  • Chris Taylor, VisitScotland

Items and actions


  • 10:00-10:15   Welcome and Scottish Government Overview
  • 10:15-10:45   Key Worker/Student Accommodation
  • 10:45-11:20   Transport
  • 11:20-12:15   Digital Connectivity
  • 12:15-12:45   Lunch break
  • 12:45-13:15   Depopulation Action Plan
  • 13:15-13:45   Maximising Net Economic Impact and Socio-Economic Benefit from Energy Developments 
  • 13:45-14:00   Closing remarks

Start of Transcript

Shona Robison:

Good morning everyone. I can see people are still joining, so just give everyone another minute if that's OK.
Just until we get everybody on and then everybody muted, if that's OK.

Thank you. Ok.

I think we'll make a start if that's ok and thank you all for joining this virtual meeting of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands.

It's really good to be with you to chair today's session as Deputy First Minister and I really look forward to having the same productive relationship that you had with my predecessor, John Swinney.

I must of obviously begin by recognising the circumstances that we find ourselves meeting online rather than in person and apologies for that. But we all know that clearly the reason was those who were and continue to be affected by the impact of Storm Babet and I'd like to thank all Members for your understanding and cooperation in our decision to reschedule the meeting to today and I'm especially grateful to Moray Council, who have agreed to postpone their hosting duties to our next meeting in Spring 2024, which will be in person.

I understand very much the value this forum holds for all of the organizations that are around the table, which are many and thank you all again for your attendance.

Throughout the course of today we'll hear about the activities already underway at the significant opportunities there are for all areas as well, of course, as the current challenges.

I'm joined today by my colleague Fiona Hyslop, who is of course the Minister for Transport and we're very much looking forward to gaining more insight into the economic and social priorities in the Highlands and Islands.

Before we get started can I please remind you to take note of the housekeeping information that has been posted in the chat.

We've got a very busy agenda today and I'd be grateful if contributions could be made as swiftly as possible to keep things moving along and to save time, we will not agree any outcomes during this meeting, but officials are keeping a note of the discussion and we'll share draft outcomes with Members shortly afterwards.

In assuming the role of chair, I'd like you to consider whether the format of these and in the manner in which they're conducted delivers the maximum results for all assembled. That's not to question the need for this engagement, but simply to request that you reflect on whether any refinements are required as we conduct our discussion today and clearly meeting in person does make the discussion, I think a lot more fullsome and rich. So that is obviously what we'll do in Spring.

So, grateful for any reflections on that point around the structure of meetings you could send to officials, before we meet next time in the spring.

So on to business, and with a review of the previous outcomes, I’ll just invite Members to note that outcomes from the previous Convention meetings were included in the papers for today's meeting. That's papers one and two. Please contact the Secretariat team after today's meeting if you have any comment on the papers.

In terms of written papers, 2 written updates were shared with members ahead of the meeting. That's paper 3 an update from the Regional Economic Partnership and paper 6, which is an update on Green Freeports.

The Green Freeports paper provides a summary of recent activity on the Green Freeports program, and I'm aware there's been discussion between Members and Officials about this topic being added to the agenda for next year's spring meeting, when we'll be able to explore progress more fully.

I also welcome the update tabled by the Regional Economic Partnership. I know that much of the partnerships work will feed into our discussions and I welcome the close relationship between the Partnership and the Convention in focusing our attention on key areas that will have the biggest impact for the economy.

So I'd invite Members to note the helpful content of the partnership update and its plans to develop an economic strategy for the region to join up activity and to capitalize on the significant and wide ranging opportunities ahead.

So, thank you for that and we will get into some of the meat of some of these issues shortly. I want first though, in terms of the next agenda item, just to provide an update to Members on the Scottish Government priorities; this is in relation to papers 4 and 5 that have been shared with you in advance of the meeting.

So since we last met, the First Minister has published his Policy Prospectus, which sets out his missions on equality, opportunity and community, and really these missions can only be achieved through partnership work across society, including with local government and public sector bodies, as we are doing today.

The Programme for Government published in September, gives further detail on how this work, as well as the National Strategy for Economic Transformation will be taken forward, and this includes how regional empowerment and growth will be supported by acting on the recommendations of the Regional Economic Policy Review.

Across the next 18 months, we'll also be taking forward the action set out by the New Deal for Business Group to help improve our relationship with business and deliver on our ambitions for a fair, green and growing wellbeing economy.

I want to move on to the Scottish Budget, which I know will be something of great interest to you all. As you're aware, I'm sure, we'll set out the budget on the 19th of December and we are reviewing opportunities for more effective targeting of existing provision and services in the budget, whilst of course prioritizing programs of work that will have the greatest impact on the delivery of the core missions that are mentioned earlier on.

As we set out in the medium term financial strategy, the financial situation is among the most challenging since devolution and we will do of course all we can within our powers to ensure that public finances are on a sustainable path, the autumn statement provides additional challenges and I have to say we might get into some of that later on, but it will be a considerable challenge for public services going forward.

Just to touch on the Rural Delivery Plan, the rural economy is of course a major source of growth and the Scottish Government will be publishing a Rural Delivery Plan by the end of the Parliament. I think by acting now we can seize the economic opportunities and community benefits from the just transition to net zero and we can also make sure that our natural resources are managed sustainably to the benefit of all of Scotland.

We can't ignore the challenges that are facing rural island and coastal communities, some of which again will discuss today in more detail.

I think the Rural Delivery Plan is an opportunity really to set out the actions that government and public bodies are taking to address these issues, and place a new focus on identifying gaps in investment and reprioritising resources to address these gaps. I've convened a ministerial working group to make sure that we have the support and buy in, right across the Scottish Government by all Ministers.

The Rural and Island Housing Action Plan has just recently been published and this has been informed by strong engagement across rural and island communities. The plan sets out the measures that will be taken to improve access to high quality, affordable homes across rural and island communities, and it supports our commitment to deliver the 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 10% will be in rural and island areas. The delivery of these ambitions, of course can't be achieved by the Scottish Government alone and it will require the continued commitment, the collaboration and the dedication of a wide range of organizations, including Convention Members working together to enable more homes to be delivered.

And finally, I'd like to mention our New Deal with Local Government. We are committed to forging a stronger partnership between local and national government to achieve better outcomes of communities. The agreement marks the beginning of a new way of working together and sets out the principles that will follow as we tackle some of the challenges, including transforming the economy, tackling poverty and providing high quality public services.

And I look forward to working with COSLA and other local government representatives to agree a more detailed program of work, a new fiscal framework, and an accountabilities and monitoring framework to underpin the Verity House Agreement.

So I hope I've been able to give you a bit of a flavour of the work that we're doing across government. It doesn't cover everything, but I've tried to bring out some of the highlights and new things that have been brought to the fore.

I expect that many of the issues have touched upon will be explored in greater detail throughout the meeting today and of course, I very much look forward to hearing from Convention Members on how we can work together to further support your ambitions across the Highlands and Islands.

So I'm going to stop there to have a some brief comments from members, just at this point. Bearing in mind we will get into some details later on, so please don't feel you have to give your view now, but I will just take anything of particular urgency at the start of the meeting if anyone wants to come in, and if not, we'll move on to the next item.

So just raise your hand in the usual way and I will try to catch your attention.

I think you're all going to be very kind to me when I'm trying to chair this with so many people online. So, I've not seen anyone wanting to come in. Maybe it's because, as I said, you're going to have the opportunity to come in later on in the agenda.

So I think then in that case. Thank you for bearing with me in running through those items and I'm going to move us on to the very important issues around key worker housing and student accommodation.

I'm going to ask Vicki Nairn to kick us off on this item. I should say that you know it is a hugely important item, that I think really has an opportunity for us to work together, not just across the public sector but in terms of private sector and businesses as well.

So just by way of just setting the scene for this before I hand over to Vicki. On student accommodation first, I'm aware that some students have had difficulty in securing suitable accommodation for the duration of their courses, but I'm assured from officials’ discussions with institutions that the situation is improved this year.

The direct provision of student accommodation, of course, is not a direct matter for the Scottish Government. But, our review of purpose built student accommodation has now concluded and the recommendations formulated by the review steering group are with ministers for consideration.

I'm sure you'll take an interest in that.

As you know, the review looked at a number of issues, including supply and partnership working; and it's heartening to note the degree of partnership working already in place in the Highlands and Islands between local government, enterprise organisations, institutions and private investors to develop the often innovative solutions that you refer to in your update paper.

Just a word about key worker housing before a pass on to Vicki. I think it's absolutely key that a tailored approach is needed for rural areas, and good quality affordable housing is, of course, essential to not just attract people, but retain people within their communities.

And as I mentioned earlier on, we have that high level overarching target of delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, at least 10% of which will be in rural and island communities.

In addition to that, though, we're making available, on a demand led, basis up to £25 million from our affordable homes budget to allow properties including empty houses to be purchased or long leased and turned into homes for key workers and others who need affordable housing in rural areas. And I'm aware that there's been quite a lot of novel and innovative ideas coming forward about how that can work.

And of course, even a small number of repurposed, or bringing homes back into use, can make such an impact, or in a community in terms of being able to support people remaining in their community, or indeed coming to live there to provide essential work either in the public or private sector.

So enough from me, before I hand it over to Vicki, a thanks to everybody for their work on this paper, it is a very good paper.

So Vicki, as Principal and Vice Chancellor of UHI, I know this will be an issue of huge importance to you and I'll hand over to you to speak to the paper.
Thanks very much.

Vicki Nairn:

Thank you Deputy First Minister. Good morning everybody, and thanks for the opportunity to speak.

I think really this has been a theme that we've talked about a number of times and he here at UHI we're in a slightly different position to many more traditional universities in the fact that we offer a tertiary spectrum of education. So everything from further education and skills based education, but right up to degree level and postgraduate and significant amounts of research.

Really the purpose of bringing the paper to this forum is to highlight the that we have some particular challenges around student accommodation. We have had some successes as well and I'll come on to talk about those, but most student accommodation that universities will have is based on a volume model and is really targeted towards international students.

So my previous role was at Robert Gordon University when we had significant accommodation that was targeted at first year students coming into the area, and also international students, and it was seen as sort of a safe place to land for them as they sort of got used to being in a new country and starting their studies.

UHI does have some student accommodation and we have a reasonable amount of accommodation in Inverness, in Dornoch, in Elgin and also a small amount in Fort William.

But what we are finding is that in terms of our reach and being able to attract students across our geography, and our region which isn't just Highlands and Islands it also stretches sort of down to Perth as well. That we're finding that actually it's quite difficult for us to attract particularly international students and particularly into areas where we have some of our signature courses such as Orkney for instance, because the accommodation market is so tight and trying to find rental accommodation especially in some of the Islander communities is really very difficult and I know that doesn't just extend student accommodation, it also extends to worker accommodation and rental accommodation.

We have been trying to explore innovative finance solutions, also looking at modular buildings as well and that has had some success.

But the difficulty that we find is in trying to secure sort of private sector funding to actually move ahead with some of these projects. Because we're not based on the traditional volume model and we're not based in a city centre or a large conurbation like Edinburgh, Glasgow or Dundee, we just, we just don't really have the numbers in terms of attracting.

So previous funding streams that we would have looked at, financial transaction funding which offer low cost finance, that those are areas where we would really welcome any flexibility that there may be in terms of capital funding.

We are looking at collaborative opportunities with local authorities and also with the NHS.

So for instance, some of our accommodation in Inverness, we are working with or have worked in the past with NHS Highland to use that accommodation, and in periods of quiet time such as the summer holidays to use it for a key worker accommodation.

But that's only really a temporary solution, so I'm not going to go through the paper in detail because I'm very mindful of time. But I think that the primary issue really remains because of the fact that we are trying to attract students and make sure we've got the accommodation in the right places. It's quite difficult to secure the funding for that, so that's why city deals, growth deals, levelling up funding are really helpful in our case in terms of actually securing funds and then working with our public sector partners.

So a good example with that would be in Fort William, where we've submitted proposals about development of the waterfront, which would be both a STEM centre but also accommodation as well, and also in Orkney, where we’re collaborating with another university to understand how we can build student accommodation in that area as well, and very mindful of working with our colleagues in HIE.

Finally, the one thing I would say is, given the huge economic development opportunities that are coming to the fore, especially around the inner Moray Firth area. We’re really keen to link that to the Skills agenda and to actually link it to the research agenda as well.

And again, in terms of inward attraction, we want to be able to attract top level academics, for them to come and for them to be able to then go into quality accommodation. So that actually their entry into our region is as good and as productive as possible and that makes them want to stay.

At the moment, apart from, I would say our Inverness, Dornoch, and Elgin halls, it can be very mixed. So, for instance, our Scottish Association for Marine Science research labs, you know, our students are looking at hostile accommodation. And again, you know, if we want to attract the right calibre of professionals and academics to help us develop these amazing agendas that we have here, it would be really good if we could look at a holistic solution.

So I hope that's a brief overview Deputy First Minister, thank you very much for the opportunity and I'm sure colleagues from HIE might like to might like to add to that, and perhaps other colleagues talk about key worker accommodation as well.

Shona Robison:

Thanks very much, Vicki, and a number of challenges that out, but also are quite a number of potential solutions. Your point about FT's is a good one. Unfortunately, they've rather gone off a cliff from the availability that they there used to be. For Scottish Government we used to use the FT's provided by the UK Government quite well in the affordable housing arena, we used up quite a chunk of them through that route.

But they have reduced rather, so we will need to think about how what other potential innovative finance solutions there could be.

And I take your point about the numbers. We're not talking about large numbers, but we your point about quality is also important here. So, keen to hear from others around what possible solutions working across. You mentioned a couple of public sector organizations, I'm wondering whether there's any private sector organizations that might also be able to partner and be part of a partnership approach in trying to either find land availability or indeed repurposing buildings and so on.

So anyway, I will open up for discussion if you can just raise your hand in the usual way and I will bring you in at this stage. Is there anyone from HIE would like to come in?

Malcolm, I can see. Sorry, Stuart is first Stuart Black and then I've got Malcolm Burr.

Stuart Black:

Yes. Thanks Deputy First Minister, it's just to say, I mean Vicki asked me to comment.

I think we are doing quite a lot of work on this issue through our housing subgroup of our Regional Economic Partnership.

So we've had several meetings. We've been meeting now since the early part of the summer, looking at how we solved the issue around housing.

It's a bit disappointing in the paper to see comments and I'm not sure if it's fair summary, but it talks about crisis, housing crisis, being an oversimplification, and you know it talks about it being overhyped.

But I don't think it is. I think the housing situation is really serious. In terms of employers, it's the number one thing that they raise. I was also at the Rural and Islands Parliament, I think you were there too, and housing came up through young people as being a key issue.

So I think there's no question that housing is a really serious issue at the moment in the Highlands and Islands, we are working on some potential solutions.

We're talking with colleagues in Scottish Futures trust around different funding, particularly for private rented accommodation, which is lacking. We also know that key worker accommodation you've referred to in your introduction is also a problem, and student residences are part of the mix.

But I do think that the housing situation is really serious and it's welcome that the new Rural and Islands action plan focuses on it.

 But I do think more needs to be done because it keeps coming up. So we are working on funding, we're working on modular housing. We've got BE-ST, the Construction Innovation Centre involved. We also have housing associations involved and there are some fundamentals around the costs of construction at the moment, and the cost to value ratio is very significant in terms of in the wrong direction.

We're seeing houses, I think being tendered at up to 400,000 or prices coming back at up to £400,000 for an affordable home, which is clearly very expensive.

So I think there does need to be flexibility as well in some of the intervention rates and we are seeing that from government which is positive. So that a lot of challenges in this one, but also we are working hard with colleagues and councils, housing associations and indeed we have private sector representation there as well to try and find some solutions. Thanks.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Stuart.

I've noted a couple of your comments there to come back to in terms of summarizing actions and outcomes. Malcolm, you want to come in?

Malcolm Burr:

Thank you, Deputy First Minister and thank you for letting me in.

Apologies from Councillor Paul Steele, who is unable to join us just now on account of a ferry cancellation, he's making his way to Stornoway, but he'll join us as soon as he can.

Stuart has made many of the points I was going to make, so I won’t take up time.

We were, slightly bemused by the commentary about worker accommodation being overhyped, and it is not I can assure you. With the welcome developments which will be taking place in the Western Isles, that will become a welcome, but significant, problem for us all . As know from your previous role, Deputy First Minister, the housing provision has been has been generous in many cases, it is the flexibility that we seek to make maximum use of it.

And what is set out in the paper I think is welcome. The recommendations? Yes, absolutely. Seeking to quantify demand is certainly a logical step, but there is a lot of material and information out there at present, particularly in the islands. I don't speak just for the Western Isles here.

Finally, the report mentions student accommodation in Stornoway, but I I'm obliged to find out there is a very active but small branch of UHI in South Uist and student accommodation there is equally as important an issue and equally and a problem.

So I do hope that will be expanded to include Uist, as well as Lewis.

Thank you very much.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Malcolm.

We'll take that last point on board in terms of capturing that and, Màiri.

Màiri NicAonghais:

Cabinet secretary, welcome to you indeed. Everybody's stealing everybody else's thunder here. Malcolm has just made the points that I was going to make.

Vicki I noticed you didn't mention the Western Isles, but we are very keenly working with UHI across all of Uist. We have some very fine facilities here, that are also some private providers of accommodation and we have a very pragmatic approach to things.

We were aware that earlier this year, a course, was cancelled after people had actually secured accommodation, so there's more than accommodation that we require. So just wanted to add my voice to what Malcolm and Stuart had said and that's enough for me just now.

Shona Robison:

Thank you Màiri, I'm not seeing anyone else with their hand up.

So let me just reflect on some of the things that have been said and capturing for things going forward.

So first of all, I think I'm left with the very clear sense, that's been emphasized that this is a very serious situation in terms of the lack of and affordable housing and availability of housing generally.

And there are challenges, cost of construction was mentioned.

I mean construction inflation is has been eye watering over the last couple of years, impacting on every single bit of infrastructure across the board. So that is a challenge.

I don't mean to heap bad news, but let’s just set all of the challenges out before we come back to solutions. We will receive a 10% cut in our capital budget over the next five years and which will very much, well it's a challenge upon a challenge, isn't it?

So we will need to look at innovative financing opportunities beyond the traditional capital route and I'm very keen that we do that in partnership; SFT were mentioned earlier on and are plugged in very much to looking at how we do that.

There's something also about the partnership with employers, Stuart Black mentioned that employers also have gaps in their workforce. The housing situation is clearly part of that and I think that there's some very good examples and where employers themselves have played a role in helping to resolve some of the accommodation issues in partnership with public bodies.

So I think we need to see all of those partners around the table.

I think the paper really highlights that we’re looking at some of the innovative solutions around modular, around repurposing. One of the areas that we're taking forward across, where Scottish Government is leading on, with our public sector bodies, is a review of the estate. Given that we have, I think the someone told me, including local government around 30,000 public buildings as part of our estate. And in the light of people working differently, working from home and in light of some of the net zero requirements to bring properties up to a standard, some of which would just be not economical to do. So there is a question about what do we do with that estate and is there the opportunity to potentially repurpose, whether it's the building or the land that the building sits on.

So I think we need to think now little bit more strategically here around what does that look like for the Highlands and Islands in terms of what the collective estate looks like.

So I would just put that out there because we are looking at that, across the board it, and it may provide an opportunity to rethink what we do with some of that estate. That’s just one element of a number, there is not one single solution here. Clearly there will be a multitude and different for different areas.

So I think just to conclude, this remains a key, absolute key issue, for the Convention. It remains a key issue for the Scottish Government.

We have some solutions that have been set out, but we also need to really interrogate further what some of those finance solutions and practical solutions may be that can overcome some of those barriers.

So I think that perhaps captures the points that have been made and we'll keep this on as a live issue for the Convention to monitor progress being made.

So thanks to Vicki in particular and everybody who input into the paper and for your contributions.

I'm going to move us on and we are remarkably slightly ahead of schedule. Unheard of, so thank you all.

I'm going to move us on to the next critical item, which is on transport and I'm going to hand over to my colleague Fiona Hyslop who's going to chair this item.

So, Fiona, over to you.

Fiona Hyslop:

Thank you very much, Deputy, First Minister, and thank you to you and CoHI colleagues for the invitation to join the meeting. I'm joined today by Transport Scotland, Director of Ferries Roddy MacDonald and also Michael Bratcher from our aviation department and also we have Ranald Robertson, who's representing HITRANS.

I don't need to tell everyone on this call, but transport connectivity is absolutely vital to the wellbeing of the Highlands and islands; underpinning the economy, society, people and places and it's been recognized in discussions of many of you that have been involved earlier this month.

We had, I thought a good discussion, a strategic discussion, at the Islands Transport Forum and also the Islands Forum on Connectivity in Stornoway.

For this Convention I understand that HITRANS, with contributions from local authorities and the Scottish Government, have developed a paper for discussion, and Ronald and Roddy will provide more information on that paper.

So I'm just going to make a few very brief high level remarks.

I want to reassure you that the Islands Connectivity Plan is developing well and we are on track to see the strategic paper and long term plan for vessels and ports on the CHFS and NIFS networks published for consultation later this year.

And you'll also be aware because a number of you were on the call, that we had on the CHFS 3 proposal for a direct award from the Scottish Government announced recently.

I very much appreciate your comments at that meeting and also your advice as we go forward in making sure we've got a good contract that puts public service and the needs of the communities at the heart of our ferry provision.

On the paper that you have in front of you, there's also an update on the fixed links proposals around the next steps for STPR2 Recommendation 41.

Clearly, the opportunity and benefits for construction of a fixed link, can recommendation 41 points a way forward and how we could actually look at that option further as outlined in the paper. A key part of that will be clearly close discussions and involvements of key stakeholders and local communities, and that's very much part of that.

The issue of local authority ferries is covered in the paper, which highlights some of the work of HITRANS and ZetTrans and the four local authorities with ferry responsibility. And on replacement options the Deputy First Minister and I have met with both the Orkney Ferry Placement Task Force and Shetland Ferry Replacement Task Force recently. As the paper in front of you notes, we're also looking at the need for authorities to replace aging ferry fleets and the infrastructure and the funding infrastructure that may have to develop as part of that and we've had some good and positive and continuing engagement.

The paper also importantly covers air services, and that is as we are always reminded critical importance the Highlands and islands. So the paper that we have, outlined some of those challenges to air services and also it would be good to and you hear some of your views on that and what priorities might mean.

And indeed, the opportunities that technology may present and also as we discussed at the Islands Transport Forum at thinking differently about our connections more widely and holistically.

So I'd like to thank HITRANS and Transport officials for the work and preparing the paper we've got in front of us. I'm going to pass over to Roddy MacDonald and Ranald Robertson, who will speak to the paper and then we've got an opportunity to hear your views and the points that you want to make.

So Roddy and Ranald, if I can hand over to you this instance. Thanks

Roddy Macdonald:

Thank you, Minister. Morning everyone.

If I just pick out some of the key points around the Islands Connectivity Plan and then maybe ask Michael to come in on aviation, and then Ranald in terms of the wider issues in the paper.

So the islands connectivity plan, we've talked before about at CoHI, it's the document that we're looking to set out the strategy for ferries and other aspects of island connectivity going forward. We're doing a lot of consultation with island communities and stakeholders at the moment and as the minister said, we're looking to publish a couple of documents.

One is a sort of strategic overview of the visions and priorities and one is a more in depth document on the long term plan for vessels and ports. Importantly, we set out a vision that services will be safe for reliable and affordable and inclusive, and then we'll be looking to set out a series of priorities as to how we can actually get to that point.

Communities consistently tell us that reliable and resilient is the key kind of aspects they want from their fairly service in particular, but they obviously also want that from their aviation service as well.

Just looking at some of the key themes that communities have been talking to us about and that we'll be looking to pick up in the documents is the overall community voice and transparency of decision making. We'll be looking to do Community Needs Assessments over the coming year and to 2024, which will help us look at the detail of services going forward.

The aspect of community voice will also be picked up in the work, in terms of the CHFS 3 contract and the Direct Award in particular, that will be absolutely key. my team was out talking to various communities in Islay and Arran at the end of last week hearing views on those things. Then we'll be looking at kind of operational aspects like capacity and demand and timetabling.

We know there's a big issue from communities on when somebody needs to travel for unplanned emergency, whether it's a family member on the mainland who suddenly taken ill or a hospital visit, that kind of thing. How does the network actually cope with that and in terms of the operations to make sure that is dealt with in a more positive way, we'll be looking at fares, we will be looking at and low carbon and environment, and then we'll be looking at the replacement program for the vessels and ports.

Key in terms of the vessels is the small vessel replacement program, which is on track and we're currently working through our own internal kind of management processes and business case approvals.

The exciting thing about that program is that the vessels can be electric because they cover the smaller roots and actually to make those vessels electric will be a huge impact in terms of net zero in terms of the ferry fleet.

So I'll probably stop there, as the Minister also said, working closely with local authority colleagues in terms of the taskforces and taking forward the actions from the Shetland and Orkney taskforces as well.

Ok, I'll pass over to Michael, maybe just to say a couple of words about aviation strategy, and then Ranald after that.

Thanks Michael.

Michael Bratcher:

Thanks Roddie. In terms of aviation, Scottish Government recognises the importance of air services to the Highlands and Islands, which is why we continue to provide significant funding to support these services.

Through our funding of HIAL, the Air Discount sSheme, and our direct subsidy of PSO services we are enabling air services to operate.

This is, however, becoming increasingly challenging, giving the wider budgetary situation and the impact of inflation on costs. As was mentioned in the previous item, capital costs are increasing, but we're also seeing significant increases in the cost of operations as well.

We recently renewed the Glasgow to Campbelltown, Tyree and Barra Air Services for a further four years. The cost of this is increased from £21 million in the 2019 to 2023 period to £31 million for the 2023 to 2027 period.

Despite this increase, we remain committed to the services, but this increasing cost does mean that pursuing new initiatives is challenging given that it's costing us more to maintain what we're currently doing there is.

However, a lot of good work going on across Scotland and more widely looking at improving services for communities and reducing aviation’s impact on the environment. This includes the estate project which Ranald will say some more about.

Ranald Robertson:

Thank you, Michael.

Thank you, Minister and Roddy as well.

And I'll just pick up within from Michael in terms of security of air services, I think the people does make some reference to some concerns that have been felt in communities, particularly island communities, in recent months, with some service reliability issues.

It does recognize, I think the significant investment that is made in our air services and asked the question whether there might be potential to look at how, how we manage those resources to get the most out of our out of our system.

It's quite interesting, that having listened to the Minister presenting the CHFS 3 update to Parliament, questions were asked around the Colonsay service at the moment and how air services and ferry services might work to complement one another better, which is an important I think aspect of what should come through the Islands Connectivity Plan and the paper does make reference to where that has worked very, very well in Orkney. Where one, the governance model all rests under the Council, so the volume has been able to be put up on what the Islander does, particularly with freight services to North Ronaldsay and other areas and how that can complement the ferry operation. Which I think is a good a good example for us to consider holistically when we're considering holistically about island connectivity.

On local authority ferry services I think I should note as well as the positive reference that we make to the increased investment in revenue support for these services, even since this paper was drafted, there have been two significant announcements around these services.

The reprofiling of spend from digital in the Inverness and Highland City region deal to allow the infrastructure that Corran Ferry to be made more resilient and more available to a wider range of vessels, potentially helping to secure that which is the second busiest ferry service in Scotland and the busiest that is supported by any form of government, local or national.

And so again, really good news.

But the key issue with their fairly services is what's been recognized through the Orkney taskforce to try and understand what the infrastructure and investment required to bring these services up to a standard that we would consider acceptable.

We know that the average fleet age and in, Shetland, Argyll and Bute and Highland is far, far older than that on the CMAL fleet. 25 and a half years, to a comparison of 35 in the case of the Highland fleet.

So that is clearly a need for this work to progress, and it's really welcome that it is. So I'll say no more at the moment and leave it open to discussion now.

Thank you all.

Fiona Hyslop:

Ok. Thank you.

And this is a big topic and I've had a number of discussions in a number of meetings recently, which I think also emphasizes how critical this is and I want that to continue.

So if you put your yellow hand up and I'll bring in, I think we've got Malcolm, is that correct first? Thank you very much.

Malcolm, do you want to come in?

Malcolm Burr:

I was about to put my hands Cabinet Secretary, happy to happy to do that.

As you say, this is a massive paper and in the interest of time I'll confine my remarks only to a few points.

Can I first of all, welcome the broader scope of the ICP and including the possibility of fixed links. I think that's, as we discussed at the Connectivity forum, I think that's absolutely essential. I would urge though  that as part of that broader consideration we do, we do include local authority transport assets and services.

We all have the same outcomes in mind here, and we're all part of the solution and that includes I think the PSO's within the islands areas.

I mean I have to observe and I observe that I'm very pleased that the funding for the Glasgow to Barra PSO, for example, was increased to reflect the market.

It's gone up by about, I think, a third again and yet the funding the funding given to the Comhairle for the Stornaway to Benbecula PSO, does not even cover the current cost. I have to advise, you know, with current constraints which are understood, I don't think the Comhairle can continue to subsidize that service for very much longer.

So when we're broadening the scope and rightly, can we include all the transport delivery on the table, that's not a, that's not an evasion of responsibility in any way, it's just saying one service links to another.

The bulk of the bulk of the passengers for that service are overwhelmingly NHS passengers. If that's service ceases, then that cost goes to NHS Western Isles, presumably having to take these patients to Glasgow, which is an additional cost.

Finally, I'm conscious of time, the Community Needs Assessments are very welcome indeed. But you know, let's talk about the methodology at the earliest possible stage, as well as how these are subject to islands communities impact assessment. I think that's essential for their credibility and it would improve the process.

So there's lots more I could say as you can imagine, but I'll leave it there and thanks for the opportunity to come in.

Fiona Hyslop:

Thanks very much.

I’ll maybe comment on a few things as we go along and then ask Roddy and Ranald to probably capture some of the moments and their contributions at the end as well.

I do think this aspect of how we do things holistically really matters cross-modal, but also I think that that point about Council's own provision and if we account maximize the public purse more generally, how does that link up?

And I think not for this meeting, but maybe just to flag to the Deputy First Minister, we probably have to have a better understanding with the Verity House Agreement, where that kind of already funded but within local council funding might be and how do we best use that strategically.

So I'll just put that one out there as well.  So we've got Raymond and then we'll bring in Màiri. Raymond.

Raymond Bremner:

It's nice to see everybody and at last getting the chance to be able to at least be together virtually. It would have been so much better had we all been together face to face. But this will do us and one of the one of the biggest subject materials that ever gets discussed at the Convention is transport and what a challenging portfolio that you've got there, Minister.

But I'll then maybe then look at three particular items that are very and very much a focus of Highland Council, the Highland communities and the general economic aspect that they all feed into.

The first one obviously is the work that we've been doing in Minister. You'll be aware of this and you'll be aware of all of them, but the work that we've been doing with governments, both Scottish Government and UK government, to be able to achieve focus our attention on flexibility.

If we're, as you say, and Transport Scotland representatives have said there are challenges in terms of sustaining, you know, financial support. But for us, one of those, one of those options was to look at the flexibility of other funding opportunities and how we can use that.

One of the best examples so far is the Corran Ferry, because many of the things that we are looking at is where we have aging infrastructure and challenges on the current transport provision at the moment, whilst having to see into the future and what that means. For us with the Corran ferry obviously and many other Highlands and Islands areas, and therefore the infrastructure with us, ours is considerably, it's quite really quite old.

So looking at the flexibility of funding for the Corran Ferry, that's come through uh for the infrastructure. But, we now have to look at what we do about actually providing a replacement ferry and we're going have to look pretty critically at that. I don't quite know how the existing ferry, how long that's going to last.

We've been working very hard to be able to get it back in service, but we just don't know what's around the corner for that and we will welcome the continued commitment by Government to work with Highland Council to be able to see how we can flex funding opportunities and identify other funding opportunities to be able to understand how we can continue for the provision of Corran.

The second one for me is the air services, Highland Council is committed to the PSO currently in place with from Wick to Aberdeen. Part of the vision of Council is to ensure that and we sustain our local communities and their geographically challenged areas.

We've sat down with them Transport Scotland and reviewed a lot of the information and the opportunities that lie in front of us here with Wick and that review has been submitted and we are eagerly awake awaiting an outcome. In terms of the information that has been submitted, Highland Council has committed to the to the next two years of PSO and we're looking for that to be supported by government as well.

And the third one, obviously we welcomed the commitment again to the dualling of the A9. But, umm, as with many other projects, there is not an awful lot of clarity in terms of what we can see as being the timing of that and the future, there's still much to be clarified on that.

But these are all focuses that we've got at Highland Council in terms of critical transport, connectivity, physical connectivity for our communities. But as I say, the biggest vision, the biggest focus that we've got is to sustain our communities in rurally challenged areas and transport connectivity is absolutely critical to that.

So thanks very much for allowing me to make those contributions and quite keen to hear about what we what the government might think of being able to continue working with Highland Council.


Fiona Hyslop:

Thanks very much, Raymond.

And there should be aware in you and anticipate that I'm acutely aware of all those three areas that you talked about, I think certainly flexibility being able to and that's what the UK Government did. The city deal is normally agreed by a tripartite and the announcement on the infrastructure is a redirection of existing funding and the government is acutely aware that actually there are opportunities within the city deal to look at different alternatives to help on the ferry itself.

Certainly on the air issues, I think that's probably across more widely the Convention, I think there is an issue around the considerable amount money as Malcolm already said is already being put into air services. but actually the criticality of a number of these areas, for the areas that you're describing, obviously Wick the one that you've got particular concern about and that's live and current as what that that what will happen with that in terms of the additional information you've provided. Of course air has gone through that period of the pandemic where it was very vulnerable and it's actually about that recovery rate and also that point about how can we use it intelligently in helping to support more, you know, areas that that have got more geographical challenges than others.

And then the point about the dualling of the A9, the Deputy First Minister and I are acutely aware of the need to provide that update very soon. There have been some very good and constructive discussions and that update that has been promised will come, so we can give you give you assurances on that one as well.

If you can bring in Màiri and then I've got Emma McDonald. Màiri.

Màiri NicAonghais:

Cabinet secretary. Good morning, nice to see you.

Two very quick points.

One is around the access to travel on the ferries for young people, Bòrd na Gàidhlig have been bringing up this a few times. Young people in the islands and in the traditional communities think of the ferries the same as mainland people think of the buses.

So I know this has been an agenda item for a while, so it would be interesting to hear if there's been any progress on it and that would be that people up to the age of 22-23 equal to what happens on the bus services would be allowed and given a concessionary or free travel on the ferries, that would make a huge difference and it has been brought up before.

The other one is more around all the work that's been going on in Uist, and there's a real sense in the community that everyone is coming together with the repopulation zone and all the activity that is going on and the huge efforts. But, somehow the recent cutting off the air service has really a been very concerning. In another paper it talks of all the 25 families that have relocated here recently, many of these families actually have to travel away for work and the problems around the air service, since the reduction to Benbecula is having a huge impact. There's cancellations, there's delays. It's just a reputationally very damaging for you Uist at the moment as well as just being a real nuisance. So I just wanted to bring these two things out.

Fiona Hyslop:

Thanks very much Màiri and certainly on the young people under 22, this probably two issues within that. One is the travel to the mainland, and you'll have seen there's been an announcement of government support for providing for under 22's the same amount of travel as the other, you know other off-island support. So that's an additional 2 journeys which I think would be welcomed.

However, I think a lot of the issues, Inter-island issues as well, and we were wanting to capture that in the Fair Fares review as to what might happen in terms of support of that. I was really impressed with the young people on Uist when I met them in my capacity, in the committee, when I met them about, you know, the sports, the music, etcetera, so many councils have made that kind of pitch.

But there's obviously been one announcement, but I'd be quite keen to explore what we can do further in the Fair Fares review.

And clearly, again, that point on repopulation, air services, is a vulnerability. We've got lots of vulnerabilities in the transport area, but I think in terms of you're what we're still saying, kind of acute pressures despite the fact obviously considerable amount of on investment and supporting PSO's etcetera.

So point well-made and we've got and Emma, then I've got Neil.


Emma Macdonald:

Thank you very much and good morning everybody.

I supposed to just wanted to highlight some points from a Shetland perspective.

So as everybody here knows, transport such a key enabler for us to do any of the things that we want to do within our islands communities and we really appreciate the work that we've had ongoing with the Scottish Government around the revenue funding that we received for our ferries. Now that makes a significant difference when we look at our services and what we can provide and the ongoing conversations were now having around looking at the capital challenges, I think it does give us that sense we're not in this on our own.

We recognize that this is something that we need to do collectively to try and find a solution, and I think when we look at some of the other areas that we're discussing today around depopulation and looking at how we reshape some of our services in light of the fact we just are not going to be able to continue them at the same rate, it all does go back to that transport.

If you have good reliable transport then you can look at reshaping your services in a way that means you don't have to have things in certain places.

So I think it is all linked and we're very glad that we're having the ongoing conversations we have and haven't.

So thank you for that.

Fiona Hyslop:

Thank you.

And I think there's kind of distinct kind of concern particularly from the points made by the Deputy First Minister about, you know, 10% cut in your capital budget is for anybody, at the same time as we've got that kind of growing inflationary costs.

So therefore, how do we kind of, you know smartly collectively think about how we make this work best in challenging circumstances, but appreciate your support for what we've been doing and they're discussions suit to date.

Councillor Neil Cameron.

Neil Cameron:

Thank you, Minister, and thank you everybody.

Personally, thank you for the for the paper. Very, very thorough one.

I just wanted to, while we're talking about people's stealing thunder. Thank you very much Emma. She's pretty much said everything I wanted to say. But, Moray not being an island obviously doesn't really fit into the parameters of this, but we are a rural community and we do also suffer from a lot of the things that we already talked about.

I actually really wanted, as the A9 got a plug, I just wanted to remind everybody about the A96 that was really all I wanted to say, dueling thereof.

Fiona Hyslop:

So, thank you very much Neil and clearly there's two different parts of the A96, there's the issue of the Inverness to Nairn area where we're more necessary further on and we'll be expecting the kind of review that's been commissioned to also provide that insight as to priorities on the A96 as well. All subject, as you might be acutely aware, to what I've just said in terms of the challenges on financing.

But I think, Neil, you're probably the only one that not had a chance to see in recent weeks and the many and extensive transport discussions that we've had and I really look forward to actually meeting everybody in person in Elgin.

I think what we can do collectively with CoHI is really powerful. It's many years since I've attended CoHI. I was there when we were kicking off the repopulation work, way, way back and we met in Inverness for that.

I do think these things are all connected in terms of how we make sure that we have that sustainability. That’s an excellent point Emma made, this is tied up very much also with the discussion point that we're going to lead into next or further in the agenda in terms of repopulation.

I think it is that mindset that we need to approach and also looking at our Islands Connectivity Plan, that strategic aspects of linkages with air in particular and that sustainability, also I should have reflected is in the issues around NHS travel in particular.

I think we really need to drill down to that because you've got an essential service there's getting increasingly expensive and you know to what extent is the coordination as strong as it could be?

Now I'm going to leave that there, I'm saying that as a relatively new Transport Minister but I think if we're looking cross public service we're going to have to think very smartly and intelligently about how we work with that.

So I’m going to bring in Oliver and then if anybody else wants to come in before I hand over to Ranald and Roddy to perhaps go through some of the points I've not been able to immediately address in our perspective.


James Stockan:

It's actually me.

Fiona Hyslop:


James Stockan:

My computer has crashed.
Fiona Hyslop:

It’s Councillor Stockan sorry. Yeah, that's right.

James Stockan:


So I've had to come through here and get some missed part of the meeting, and so I've kind of come in late on this, but just to say that day, I'm delighted to hear that we've got the Islands Connectivity Plan coming forward. But I think we need to nail down some time scales on this because as you are very well aware, you know we have a freight review that was put in place more than 10 years ago and nothing was done about that, and then we have fares reviews that need to be aligned, particularly with some of the disadvantage that we had.

For those that weren't here in 2017 at CoHI, we made a commitment to the government and councils to try and balance the whole network in fairness, before we move forward in new things, so we're still in that place.

So it particularly where we have freight that is three times the price on the Pentland Firth and passenger rates and cars that are twice the price of any other place in the of the same time or distance in the network, we really keen to know when our Community are going to find it out what the outcome from that is.

So just to know the timescale of that would be really valuable. Thank you.

Fiona Hyslop:

Thanks very much then, James.  Is there, anybody else who wants to come in on that?

Just to reiterate what Roddy had said about, we’ve obviously got the small vessel replacement ports infrastructure plan, that will have time scales will be part of that. Long term ports and vessels replacement aspect. Again also in terms of you know what we need in terms of whether it's freight or other areas, that point about the Islands Connectivity Plan is this is not all about problem and a detriment, it's about how do we actually meet opportunity.

And I think in terms of freight, you've seen particularly with Orkney, and indeed you're seeing it in other parts that the actual growth in demand on freight is a point of success. It's because of thriving different industries that are doing well, but it's how do we meet that capacity.

So you know, Roddy, in terms of what we might expect therefore in terms of timescales. Because, I think that point about you know I'm very keen that we do the kind of delivery aspect, I know the First Minister said this is about delivery.

We want to have a shared vision and understanding of what we need in terms of the islands connectivity, but we also want that kind of point that we can look to actual delivery in terms of the you know, the plans that we set out.

So I don't know whether you want to come to you Roddy first or whether Ranald is something to look for. Ranald.

I'll come to Roddy and then Ranald, are you happy to kind of do a  bit of a run around in some of the issues and also in terms of the bits of the paper that you think probably needs to be surfaced so that we can we can take it forward. I'm very pleased to hear and the positive remarks about the paper itself, Roddy.

Roddy Macdonald:

Ok. Thanks, Minister.

So, in terms of some of the timescales that that's where we're looking to do in terms of the ICP is actually set down some firm time scales. So, that will be one of the things we will be setting out and we're really conscious of the freight issues across the country, in terms of different aspects and different parts of the network. But the freight review will definitely be part of that work next year but we will set out a clear timescale for that.

Equally, one of the key things ICP will set out is the Community Needs Assessments. So as Malcolm said, you know, we're really happy to work with all of you on the methodology around that because they are your communities.

So once we've got a clear plan around the Community Needs Assessments, we'll make sure we're really working closely with you on that. I mean generally there's a whole range of projects we're working with members of this group on, whether it's the taskforces, the PSO's, the Corran Ferry replacement, so obviously will keep going and all of that with you.

But, in terms of the kind of wider policy things people have been saying, I'd like to hope we're on the same page as you all with this because it's about integration and thinking about the different modes.

So, I might be the Director of Ferries, but I'm not just thinking about ferries in terms of how we take this forward, because we know the air services in some cases could be a better option than ferries#, or at certain times of the week and certain days and then when it's just passengers and so on.

So very much thinking about that and also then we're into kind of fixed links and tunnels and so on. Again, if they could be a long term solution for not having ferries in some parts of Scotland, again we're really keen to look at that as part of that. Can it work from the strategic transport plan?

Also then finally in terms of integration, it's with the bus and rail network and we want to make sure and that's a very alive conversation in the walls of Transport Scotland at the moment, is how do we just make sure it's all joined up. So when people are making multimodal journeys, they actually work and they're not stranded when they go off the ferry because the bus isn't there and that kind of thing.

But yeah, I mean everything I've heard today, I hope we can include in some way in the ICP and have  ongoing discussions that we're having with you all and we’re very much happy to continue them over the coming months and I'll stop there.

Maybe pass over to Ranald?


Fiona Hyslop:

OK, I'm just conscious James, your hands still up? Was it were you wanting to come back in before bringing Ranald?

James Stockan:

Well, no, I will come back in because I'm really quite keen.

Our Community want to know the date that we're going to see the fares change and you know all the other work we're delighted on the work that has been done and you know, our second use of an Islander instead of ferries with us really that takes us in a different place. Some of the new opportunities we've got with the ZEVI and things like that because we need to change and we need to do something different.

But the question we're asked day and daily is when are we going to get the same fares as the rest of the of the of the country? And when I hear that we're only going to look at something next year, that doesn't give me anything to go back with.
Thank you.

Fiona Hyslop:

Ok. Thanks very much.

You've obviously caused some alarm because Roddy unfortunately has dropped off the call, because there's a fire alarm in Transport Scotland. So I will try and deal with that as much as I can.

And so the two issues, there's immediate issues about advanced fare bookings, that need a fair decision now for the ferry networks and I'm acutely aware of that and I'm keen to press on with that.

Your point about how we align and that kind of point of, I suppose it's equity, is what can we do in relation to looking at RET. I think I'll say it before you do, James.

And obviously some of the challenges that we've had particularly with the Northern Isles network because of, you know, historic issues. So don't worry, I am very aware that this needs a good focus, and you're looking at dates and changes, but there's different time scales and different aspects of the setting of the ferry fares. So I'm very acutely aware of that.

Ranald, finally, if you would, would you like to have the last word on this and sweep out anything we haven't covered, and also perhaps give us some challenges for where we take forward. Very conscious that the air aspects are perhaps have, you know kind of existed in the shadow of ferry focus for much time.

But I'm very acutely aware as minister, that we really need to identify what we can do with on the on the air side and a bit more creatively and recognising different pressures and also linkages and with health in particular that was previously mentioned. Ranald.

Ranald Robertson:

Thank you, Minister.

I'll be brief and conscious of our time slot to approaching its end. In terms of that point, I think you make, Minister, it's a really strong one in terms of air issues, of sometimes being a bit overshadowed by their noisy neighbours, the ferry services.

But just picking up some of the points that have been raised, then maybe just adding a bit of commentary, Councillor Bremner raised the point of the Wick PSO and it is worth noting that the PSO mechanism as set out in the paper, looks to address market failure and of course, Wick experienced two, rounds of market failure. First with the loss of the commercial Wick-Aberdeen service, and then in March 2020, the withdrawal of the Wick-Edinburgh service. So again, that that's that continues to be a market not served following that market failure.

I do think the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment project is taking forward some really interesting work in low carbon aviation solutions that may have a much lower operating cost.

And although the paper suggests years away, the latest that we see in SATE as a forecast arrival time for the hydrogen islander is 2027 and the hybrid air vehicles, Air Landers, will be available from certainly the end of this decade.

So there are solutions there, but the paper does pose a point where, if we're considering the way we're supporting aviation, maybe looking at across all of the services that we're securing would be a good way forward. And I do think that the point around the PSO in the Western Isles that Malcolm raised is important because increasingly the health board has been focusing on their own hospital on Stornoway for the treatment of patients.

At the end of the day, transport is a derived demand and then you know it is, it's how we understand, getting people from Barra to Stornoway by land and sea is not a feasible option.

So we are happy to be revisit what the internal PSO within the Western Isles used to do, if you go back to 2012 when it operated five days a week that Malcolm will well remember and has the scars and from what funding has determined as a current service level.

So I think that again is really interesting that I think you know islands connectivity plan is attempting to bring all of these issues together. I think Malcolm's early point about recognising the local authority services within that context, because of the complementarity of them, is really, really key.

So and for our part in HITRANS, we've enjoyed working closely with Transport Scotland and local authority partners and I think we can build on that hopefully.

Fiona Hyslop:

Thanks very much Ranald and thank you very much in your leadership in bringing this paper together, along with colleagues in Transport Scotland and the points made their I think the points are all valid.

And I think the challenges are acutely there, but I do think that there is experience across the CoHI area that we can actually learn from each other and for example, Orkney have been given agreement from the Deputy First Minister to use some of the ferry funding that they get in terms of revenue to look at kind of a replacement in some areas.

And I think that's something that we probably need to think about when would be the most appropriate time and place and opportunity. Using air, particularly if on that sustainable aviation aspect, but it's actually about not just looking at, you know either transport or air in isolation. It's how do we look at our public services, what the needs is?

That’s why that Community Needs Assessment, is really critical because if it works, it should also identify what that might mean in terms of that, that health connection.

So I will that take on. I've already I've already said to my officials I was keen to look at that health passenger transport issue. Because I think as you just described it, particularly that Barra connection, what does that look like now? Because obviously clearly Glasgow was easier for individuals, but perhaps not necessarily in the sight of the Health Board in terms of their thinking of provision.

So I think that's been a pretty productive discussion and I know it's a big area we could have spent all our time just on air, just on ferries, or just on some of the road linkages.

So thank you for your patience, all of you that are on the line and very conscious that people haven't contributed, but I hope you've got it sufficient relationships and access both to Transport Scotland officials and increasingly with myself that I can really get under the skin of what you're needing. I think as we've heard repeatedly, let's just get on and start delivering this. Context and financial context is tight, but it doesn't stop us doing what we know we can do and do it well.

So thank you everybody for that, and with that, if I can maybe hand back over to the Deputy First Minister for the next session. Deputy First Minister.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Fiona.

That was a very rich discussion and I think shows that despite the challenges, there is a huge amount of work underway and that point Fiona you made about, the integration of looking at the needs as a whole rather than just one bit of the transport system. So I think that it's very, very much the way to look at these matters.

So we're going to move on, if we may, to digital connectivity another priority and that is it clearly a major focus for yourselves, but also for us as a government. People have come to expect that wherever they go, they'll be able to access a reliable broadband and mobile connection.

And as people change their modes of working and that it has become even more important. So, whether it's a busy town centre or enjoying the tranquillity of the countryside, we do expect it to be able to connect with friends and family when we need to, because of this. Despite the fact I should say that that telecoms of course is reserved, it's not a key it requirement of a delivery for the Scottish Government is a reserved matter.

But because of the importance that we recognize, the Scottish Government has taken the lead in addressing areas of poor coverage. So our digital infrastructure programs are delivering future proofed infrastructure that will underpin economic growth and the links between digital connectivity and enabling businesses to fulfil their potential can't be underestimated.

We also, of course, need to ensure that more and more people and communities can reap the benefits from that digital infrastructure investment. The Scottish Government investment in the digital connectivity programmes such as Digital Scotland, Superfast Broadband Programme, the reaching 100 program and of course the Scottish 4G infill programme have now connected around 1,000,000 properties to faster broadband and delivered improvements to mobile coverage across Scotland.

Although our programmes have a national focus, we placed particular emphasis on rural and island communities and Highlands and Islands in particular. Of course we recognise, as I said earlier, there's still more to do with our R-100 programme now delivering connections at pace and our S4GI programme reaching its conclusion.

We have to look ahead and we need to consider what new initiatives might deliver for rural Scotland and ensure that they are fit for purpose.

So I want to thank Members for their work on the digital connectivity item.

A lot of work has gone into producing the information for today and I'm going to pass over to Robbie McGee, who's Deputy Director for the Scottish Government Digital Connectivity division, and indeed, for his colleagues are supporting him today to present on the paper and then I'll open up for discussion.

So, Robbie, over to you.

Robert McGhee:

Thank you, Deputy, First Minister, and good morning to everyone.

So my team is leading the delivery of two really transformational infrastructure investment programs that we’ll be talking about today and the 4G infill program and the R-100 broadband program. And both of those programs are extending future proofed digital infrastructure and right across the headline stains.

So we really welcome the chance to be here today just to dig into the detail around those programs. I guess for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, because we know that each and every one of you and the organizations that you represent and is relying on being able to access high quality, reliable digital connectivity. I guess the investment we’re making through these programs alongside what's happening in commercially is providing a platform.

It's a platform that's going to enable so much of the next 10, 15, 20 years, and whether that's an enabling the public sector to kind of innovate and improve the way that we deliver services and engage with citizens or enabling businesses right across the Highlands and Islands, no matter what sector they operate and where they're located, to be able to digitalise to innovate and to grow.

So there's a really strong strategic rationale for us keeping this prominent at CoHI. There's also a practical reason why we're working it to having this discussion with you, because your organizations, all have a vital part to play n helping it to deliver these networks and deliver these programs that obviously massive civil engineering projects. And while we're going to be transformational, they might also be disruptive short term.

So we want to work as closely as possible with you all and your teams to make that deployment process as coordinated and seamless as possible and got some great examples of where that's working well. But obviously, keen to maintain dialogue through forums like this one, just to keep you updated on deployment, but also the prompt about discussion around how that infrastructure once it's in place can be leveraged to support delivery of your objectives, are really drive economic outcomes that we want to see across the Highlands and Islands.

So we move on to the next slide.

I've got Jason and Rachel from the R-100 team with me and between the three of us this morning we were planning to take you through the story of where we are in terms of broadband and mobile coverage, what we're delivering through our investment programs and what impacts we're already seeing and what's on the horizon after that.

So I'm conscious that and we'll be throwing lots of information at you with the next 20 minutes or so, but we will look to rattle through the material as quickly as we can so that we leave plenty of time for discussion.

So we move on to the next slide. I thought was useful just to briefly set the scene and the telecoms market can sometimes be a bit of a bewildering landscape to navigate. There's lots of players, there's lots of initiatives.

I guess you can see from the Ofcom stats that are on the slide, year on year capital expenditure on telecoms has grown and that's a trend that's been there for quite some time. The vast majority of that, it's commercial investment with governments and regulators doing various things to encourage and stimulate that. And obviously that's a good thing. It's generating lots of positive outcomes, but over a period that market led approach has probably skewed investment towards more populated areas and left gaps in parts of the Highlands and Islands.

And it's meant that public investment is played and increasingly important role in extending networks that fill in those gaps, whether that's through the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme that the Deputy First Minister mentioned in the remarks that HIE delivered and through to the R-100 and S4GI programs that will be focusing on today. So we'll move on to the next slide.

I was going to start by digging into mobile coverage in a bit more detail and quite a lot of the starts kicking about and mobile coverage can be a bit deceptive, particularly those that show coverage by population.

Those stats are sometimes not a great indicator of what covered you'll be like as you move around the country, particularly as you get rural areas. On this slide is the percentage of Scotland's geography not covered by a 4G network and years ago 4G was kind of in its infancy and with 83% of Scotland's landmass that wasn't covered, today that's just 16% and obviously the Highlands and Islands has seen quite a big improvement over that period as well.

But clearly there's more that needs to be done.

We would like to see improvements in how mobile coverage is measured, the Ofcom indicators are very much just that. Indications from suppliers about how far their networks coverage will go, what they don't measures the actual user experience and the quality of connections that people receive. So that's an area of focus and more to be done too in terms of investments.

There's lots of commercial investment plans to push out 4 and 5G networks, but there's also targeted public investment as well and the next slide focuses on one of the Scottish Government major investment programs, which is focused on improving mobile coverage and that's the Scottish 4G Infill program.

So there's maybe I can a bit of synchronicity work here because the program was actually launched at CoHI five years ago and the goal at that point to deliver 40 new masts across Scotland and here we are full circle and right at the end of deployment and with 55 new masts have been delivered and the very last activation will be in Druimindarroch at Loch nan Uamh this week, so a bit of circularity there.

And you can see the locations of 55 mast locations on the slide, 37 of those across the Highlands and Islands. When we started, it was all about getting commitment from one operator an anchor tenant to the level of services on each mast, and that's what unlocked the build.

But, as you can see, we’re now averaging 3 operators across the 55 masks, so that gives people right across Scotland not just access to 4G but choice over the supplier that they want to use as well, which is important.

And on the next slide, we've got some key facts and figures about the program and hopefully these give a bit of a sense of the complexity of the program.

It's not just about building a mast. It's about getting fibre to that mast. In some cases it was about building access roads to get to the site and all happening in some of the most challenging environments to work in.

And they say that pictures speak louder than words, so the next slide I think it's testament to that.

We’ve got some great images of some of the towers being flown in assembled by helicopter and you can also see that we worked hard to make the masts as kind of unobtrusive as we can, sort of working with planning authorities and others so that as far as possible they blend in with their surroundings.

We're already seeing some really, really significant impacts from the masts where they’ve been activated. And we've got some examples on the next slide. Economic impacts are most obvious, 4G coverage is enabling small businesses to trade online, to improve their visitor experience and reach new markets.

And there's also a big safety benefit for people that working in rural areas, of course, for those delivering and really important public services. Particularly in health and the medical practice on Jura is just one of many used cases in the health and social care space.

And there was also a massive social aspect to this. By bringing connectivity to a community and engaging with that community, and there's a huge potential to upskill people.

So one of the community groups on Shetland that were served by a new mast, use it as a catalyst to set up tea and technology sessions at the local community hall.

Aimed primarily at elderly residents but just really to get them familiar with devices, support them to sort of dip your toe in the water and give them a better sense of how they could use 4G. So I think it's just that sense that bringing connectivity to an area can be a massive springboard for more sustained engagement with communities around digital skills.

So the next slides and moves on to fixed broadband and gives a comparison by local authority of superfast access over the past ten years. I should stress this doesn't include superfast coverage over mobile networks or other non-terrestrial networks like low Earth orbit satellites, which is now able to access up to 200 megabits per second anywhere in Scotland as a result of low orbit satellites.

But this just shows coverage on fixed networks and you can clearly see the progress that's been made across the piece and over the last decade, but clearly more to do, particularly in our island communities. And it is worth just calling out the huge impact that Digital Scotland’s superfast broadband program had across the Highlands and Islands. That was around £150 million worth of investment, a program that was led by HIE and that brought superfast access to many parts of the Highlands and Islands for the first time.

So it's a really vital springboards and what that program did was extend fibre out into every part of the Highlands and Islands and it's been a great platform particularly as the attention turns more towards Gigabit access.

And so we've seen commercial investment in these Gigabit networks, which is going far further in the Highlands and Islands than commercial investment in superfast did. And we have our own targeted investment program, which is extending Gigabit coverage, which is probably my cue to Passover to Jason and Rachel from the R-100 team will talk you through the progress of the R-100 program.

Jason Short:

Thanks Robbie, good morning everyone.

So I'm Jason Short, I'm the program director for R-100 and I'm just going to, as Robbie did, talk quickly through some of the slides and some of the key issues and key successes we've been having over the last few years, as we've moved into the delivery phase for R-100. So, it's worth a reminder we use this part of the slide, the R-100 program is essentially a 3 legged stool.

So the first leg of that stool is the R-100 contracts with Openreach which are delivering over 114,000 premises right across Scotland.

The second leg of the stool is the Scottish Broadband Voucher scheme, which offers up to £5000 per premises for those properties that aren't covered by the R-100 contract.

And there is the continued commercial coverage as Robbie said. Investment in broadband coverage by a lot of players: Openreach, CityFibre.

Yes, it's primarily focused on the cities but the sheer volume of the increase in coverage as full fibre has become much more prevalent over the last few years has been very high.

Ok. So next slide please.

This is just some of the information about the R-100 program in numbers. So, as Robbie said, this is an enormous infrastructure engineering challenge that reaches right across Scotland. There were over 1000 Openreach engineers working on the program every day. So far we've connected over it says 40,000, I think we're more like 43,000 properties connected through the contracts.

There's over 3 1/2 thousand premises that have utilized the broadband voucher scheme.There’s some information there to give a picture of what that really entails. Those thousand engineers just this year have laid 7.8 million metres of cable across the length and breadth of Scotland. Over the last year and a half we put down 224 kilometres of subsea cable, so we've put subsea cables to another 15 islands and we've got island build moving as well as mainland build.

So Lismore is almost complete Fair Isle is almost complete now We'll talk about that a little more later. We're building on Yell. We're building on Shetland and Orkney and we're looking for ways in which we can continue to, and accelerate, build through the other island chains.

I think next year we move on to Tyree, to Colonsay and we continue to move around the Shetlands and the Orkney Islands with hope that we can we can pull the Western Isles forward. That's one of our key aims for next year.

Moving on. Just a little about the subsidy deployment.

So this was a huge challenge. It took three ships, 1 ocean going cable lane ship and two smaller ships to navigate the smaller connections on the islands across Orkney and Shetland.

We've added obviously those fifteen islands are all connected now with 16 cables, but one of the other key things that this does for us is that it provides a set, a third resilient link to the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. So there's now 3 subsea cables that connect the islands to the mainland. For those of you in Orkney and Shetland, particularly Orkney, last year there was a fishing incident, I believe it was, that caused the two main connections to come down.

That third one is wholly separate, starts at a different point on the islands end at a different point on the mainland, and that resilience is really important for moving forward.

On the next slide, you can see some of the pictures that we've used. So that's one in the centre, that's one of the subsea cable beach landings.

That's quite an engineering challenge in itself, getting the cable along to the beach, burying the cable. Working with suppliers, working with NatureScot just to make sure that what we're doing doesn't damage the land doesn't damage the landscape. There's a lot of SSSI’s.

I think there was one particular area for flavour, where we had to move twice the subsea landing point for otters, which are a European protected species. So that added additional complexity, but all of the subsea cables have now been installed and as we start building out on the islands, those will be commissioned.

So that's always a point that I like to make clear, we've landed them, but they're not all lit yet. We will only light them as we start to do connectivity to the exchanges and then connectivity to the properties on the exchange.

And you can see in the background there that's one of the ships, the Normand Clipper, that left after it completed in Shetland and Orkney. It was sailing to Japan to do more cabling across Japan and then I believe a Pacific run.

So it gives you an idea of the scale of the work that's involved in doing this. Again, moving on, I'll let Rachel take over as we start to talk about Fair Isle.


Rachael Darroch:

Thank you, Jason. Morning, everybody.

So yeah, just talk a little bit about the kind of examples of where the R-100 programs actually reaching. I was lucky enough at the start of October to the opportunity to visit the Fair Isle.

Which many of you know is the most remote inhabited island on the UK and it's one of the areas that r-100 programme is targeting and I think it can demonstrate to us what Jason and Robbie had talked about the extremities of the country that were now pushing into with fibre and the kind of complexities and challenges that come along with that. So the island is actually going to get a full fibre solution in its entirety.

And I think, with the, you know the kind of key challenges that we seen on that. Even from things like transferring the equipment onto the island within it, as you know, as the slide kind of said, the Fair Isle’s a kind of site of special specific scientific interest and all different parts of complexities and things.

And it was one of the first examples that we've had of how much coordination is required between both the local authority and multiple agencies, and to ensure that the successful deployment across the island. The complexities and challenges that we’re really kind of coming across now are probably demonstrated best within what's happened on the island.

And I think that coordination of the different permissions and things like that as well was really key to actually getting the delivery taking place on this.

And I think probably what struck me most of the when I was on the island was actually the engagement from the community and the support that Openreach and their delivery partners have had through delivering onto the island and accommodation being one of the kind of practical challenges of actually getting the engineers on to the island.

So we've got a lot of the residents and actually letting the engineers lodge with them.

Which is great to see in the support from the community across, actually having the engineers stay with them and looking at getting the equipment onto the island. They're also storing the equipment and given the challenges with the weather conditions and things like that and really supporting where they can be engineers and how they can be as efficient as possible when they've got the build taking place on the island.

So once the once the actual infrastructure is in place, the customer would then order a service and there could be a delay, in that in that they’ll order it from whichever ISP they may choose. Things like: TalkTalk, Sky and that type of thing. And then that would require that an engineer to go back onto the Island to actually complete the builds.

But what we're doing on Fair Isle is kind of trialling an approach to the specific to the islands engagement, where they're actually completing the final connections at that time, and it'll let customers order their service as and when they're ready to, without any sort of delay between the final connections actually being made. and the engineers going out onto the island.

I think as Jason said, you know we've been able to bring the build forward on the island by two years. So we're continuously working with Openreach to look at what ways can we can accelerate built and be as efficient as possible, to bring that build forward as and when we can take place.

And I think kind of key to this, quite as well across both this and the voucher scheme that I’ll go on to talk about is the kind of continued timing, commitment and support that we've had from the local authorities and the agencies that are involved across all of the R-100 programme. I think it's kind of fundamental to this success that we're seeing through the programme, both for the contract and the voucher build.

So if we go on to the next slide please.

So just a little bit about the Scottish Broadband Voucher scheme. Again, not to go into too much information around it, that is one of the strands of the R-100 programme, as Jason had said.

It's a voucher of up to 5000 pounds, which is available to all eligible properties, which can be homes or businesses. To be eligible for the scheme, essentially, the property doesn't have a superfast connection as of yet and it's not in a plan to get one either through the R-100 contracts or through commercial build, so we've got just over 40 suppliers that are actually on the scheme just now delivering connections, and as Jason had mentioned earlier on, just over 3500 have actually been made using the vouchers, and just over 1000 of them have actually been across the Highlands and Islands with about another 250 either requested or currently in build.

The scheme is technology agnostic and I think the challenge is, excuse me, that we see delivering to the islands the fact that the scheme is agnostic from a technological point of view means that we're able to deliver to, you know, kind of remote communities as what we actually can

You probably recognize from my background, it’s the lighthouse in Ardnamurchan which is the most westerly point on the mainland, and that's one of the SBVS suppliers, has actually been able to deliver a connection to that.

So it's really again kind of pushing out the superfast broadband as far as what we can actually do.

For the actual voucher, it can either be for an individual properties or there can be instances where communities are able to kind of get together and pull their projects and they can create a larger project and that sense and then that can look at being more attractive to suppliers because you probably have that, it's a demand led scheme.

So we work really closely with the suppliers and again similar to the contract build I think, but it's kind of paid dividends the support that we've got from the local authorities and kind of bridging that gap. what the demand is.

Local authorities know their aresa much more better than what we do and they're able to identify areas of need and demand and then we can kind of bridge that gap by suppliers who are looking to utilize the infrastructure and where they're actually able to connect, where people are looking to order a service. Just a final part on that, the UK Government has also got a voucher scheme and where properties are eligible across both Scotland and the UK scheme the vouchers can be combined and can give suppliers up to £9500  available to them to actually deliver a connection to some of these areas, which again certainly makes it a much it gives much more appetite for this suppliers to be able to deliver where the funding is available for that scheme.

But again, just to kind of reiterate that support of the local authorities as really being key in the successful delivery of it where we can have that kind of join up between the communities and the suppliers and we've really been able to utilize the existing network of points of contact we’ve got across the local authorities. So I think just to the kind of reiterate the time and commitment from the local authorities has been crucial to that and it's something that we're looking to, you know, continue to cultivate the relationships going forward throughout the remainder of the program.

So I'll head back to Jason to close out on a couple of slides for us.

Jason Short:

Thanks, Rachel.

So just to point out for everyone that doesn't didn't know it, this is the, this is the place to go to for information on, on timetables, on contracts, on particular premises. If as much as possible, this is where we refer the public to, it will tell them what year we're coming to the property. If we're coming within the next 12 months, it will tell them in which half of the year we're going to be able to get there.

So at the moment it probably says we'll get that by March or we'll get there by September ‘24 and then ’25, ’26, ‘27 and 28 as we reach across the whole of the rural areas of Scotland. So this is just basically there for information, please if anyone has any questions or of it gets any questions, please feel free to point people towards this.

It's the best, most up-to-date form of information that we have and we continually update it at least on a monthly basis to tell people it's either connected or if things have changed or where things are moving forward. And then on the last piece for me the last slide.

So this is just some of the key examples of our stakeholder engagement. How we're, as Rachel said, how were engaging with the local authorities, the portal that's available to local authorities that shows a little more detail. For those of you, whose team to have access to it, on build and on voucher schemes we have.

Again, the digital connectivity events, we run an event similar to this for local authority special points of contact, a little more detailed, at least every quarter. We sit down with them to talk through what we're doing, what's coming up, what areas they've got concerns about. We do that at least twice a year.

And we're constantly sending out email updates to local authorities, to MPs and MSPs, at least on a quarterly or half yearly basis, I think just in summary from R-100, Rachel's really clear there. The key for us is to continue engagement and support from the local authorities.

There is a lot of planning, a lot of work that Openreach needs to do, with you which we try and facilitate in order to maximize the and expedite the build. The other thing I've really liked to call out is we do constantly review options for acceleration, for growing coverage, for putting more premises in. It's something we're particularly focused on around the islands.

Tyree is coming up next year and we're working very closely with OpenReach to be able to extend the number of properties that we're trying to build on Tyree.

The island build for the most part on the small islands, is a once in a generation opportunity and we want to be able to make sure we maximize that. So we've been relatively successful today. Our pace is increasing.

We're up to probably a couple of 1000 premises a month, which in rural areas believe me is is very significant. So we're running up to 20 to 25,000 properties a year at the moment.

Thank you very much for listening to us. Robbie.

Robert McGhee:


I mean, I'm conscious that we've thrown an awful lot of information and I over the last 20-25 minutes and just keen to get into the discussion, but just very briefly the next slide I just wanted to mark your card about a few things that happened at both Scottish and UK level and this space.

Probably the most significant of these is project Gigabit, which is a UK Government investment program, UK wide program, which aims to get a push Gigabit coverage as far as possible. It's a lot of money attached to it.

It's a £5 billion commitment in total and we obviously from the outset I've seen it as an opportunity to build on what R-100 is delivering and extend coverage even further to support some of the activity that Jason was just trailing there.

We are working with the UK with the lead agency at UK level to design new procurement activity for Scotland. But I guess it's fair to say that we've had a few concerns about the way that project Gigabit has been set up. I guess the most obvious one is a sense that UK Government are underestimating how much it actually costs to extend networks into rural Scotland, and they have some quite strict cost caps about what they will fund and what they won’t.

I guess the approach at UK level I’d  characterise it is more of a number game. So they're trying to connect as many premises as possible, but that tends to mean the cheapest and probably means the easiest. It does mean that there's a risk that those premises that are more challenging, more expensive could be missed out and that would put them into what UK government are calling it ‘Very Hard to Reach’ category.

UK government have got consultation that runs actually until, I think is this week and may even be today, into the very hard to reach premises. We’ve prepared a response that argues for a far more generous funding approach but encourage you all to have a look at that consultation if you haven't already and just engage with UK government and ourselves on that.

So look, there are many other things that we could discuss, but that feels at the moment probably for us to draw breath and to hear from you and to open up for discussion.

So thanks to everyone for listening.


Shona Robison:

Thanks very much to Robbie, Jason and Rachel.

I must admit I'm quite blown away by the level of, and the depth of work that's going on here and I knew some of it, but I didn't know 7.8 million metres of cable have been laid so far this year that has quite astonishing and you know in some of the most remote, hard to reach areas.

So I'll open it up to anyone to come in and while you're thinking about that, I want to just pick up on Robbie's last point about the level of subsidy from Project Gigabit.

 I just wonder whether there's an appetite from members of the Convention to potentially have a bit of a joint approach to the UK Government seeking flexibility, and  more of a recognition of the costs of installation from the program and the very hard to reach consultation.

And again, I would just reiterate Robbie's suggestion that people respond to that consultation, but yeah, it might be something we could pick up as an action point to do a bit of our a joint approach to say, look, we really need the costs to be better understood and reflected in the programs, so that the they can be properly accessed by those living in very rural and island communities.

So just a thought. James. I can see you would like to come in.

James Stockan:

Yeah, I had my hand up before you made that point DFM and it's exactly where I think we should be.

We need to put some, we need to lobby on this situation and the Convention together, I think could make a far better job. When R-100 first came out, it was our position to look for the outside first so that the government intervention would be met by the market in the fullness of time. I think that's a really clear position for us again, when we've got these a things coming forward or else the very remote never get covered.

But I have one other question they want to ask and that's really to do with the voucher schemes and the challenge that we have, is initially, some very small companies locally set up the to take on these, and once you're in the voucher scheme, I believe you're outside future upgrade from anyone else. Also the challenges that that actual provider might fail or provide a poorer service.

And I'm just interested that the government might know that that is the case and where do we go with that? So if we have a failure of one of these smaller organizations, what happens to the people that are there and if the things are incompatible with what's coming forward with future, build out or speeds I would like to know where we should go with that?

Thank you.

Shona Robison:

So I'm going to ask Robbie and his team to come back in once we've heard from Malcolm, and Aoife, so Malcolm first.

Malcolm Burr:

Thank you very much.

And just to just to echo many of the points made by James Stockan there, which I'll not, I'll not repeat. The project Gigabit points that are very well made and I think collectively and our representations on that will be more effective than individually.

But with 99%, I always uh grew when I see 99% because we all know where the 1% will be, but can I, having said that, could I acknowledge the huge amount of work that's going on. The infill programme has made significant improvements in connectivity in the Outer Hebrides. We really welcome that.

Just another practical point on which the Convention may be able to assist. Where there are outages the commercial companies concerned can be very slow to do repairs and maintenance, and that of course is negative for them. But it's also negative for us, reputationally, and I know that applies in other parts of the of the Highlands and Islands too.

So, perhaps when we're pulling together the actions, colleagues with access to all of these companies could make these points because there is certainly an, an inequity in the achievement of timely repairs and maintenance.

And R-100 continues to make significant progress but I have to observe that many in our own communities will not receive the new [unclear] until 2026 and if there are opportunities to accelerate that local roll out, then they should be taken, but otherwise very supportive of what Councillor Stockan has said.

Thank you, Deputy, first minister.

Shona Robison:

Thanks very much and welcome. Aoife then Alistair.

Aoife Martin:

Thank you and good morning.

I'm speaking on behalf of NatureScot, I’m the deputy chair there. Obviously NatureScot absolutely recognises the critical importance of this work and hugely impressive to see the progress to date.

I think on the R-100 rollout, we are really pleased that we have a process that is working well with developers and we are on hand and providing early advice on design and location to avoid adverse effects on protected areas.

And I think as Jason has mentioned in his reference to the otters, that is clearly working, working well.

I think on the on the 4G infill, we are still running into a couple of issues. We are not seeing developers following the process, nor taking account of protected area sensitivities in the site selection.

We are seeing large numbers of sort of pre application and application consultation requests coming into NatureScot, that do not provide sufficient accompanying information to assess effects on protected and wild land areas. We are confident that this is a process that can be improved and we really do want to make it more efficient for all concerned.

But we are also mindful that there is a kind of a growing concern amongst NGO's and some local communities and landowners around the location of these of these masts in wild land and you know, nature rich, parts of the country. So we so we are really keen to work with developers to try and address those issues from the outset and to find solutions that work for everybody.

Thank you.

Shona Robison:

Thanks Aoife, Alistair and then Màiri.

Alistair Dodds:

Thanks DFM, can I first of all say thanks to Robbie and the team for all the work and Robbie has been very good at updated the HIE board and working with my colleagues.

This is really important for economic development. It’s absolutely vital for it. For our growth industries and remote industries. In fact we’ll touch on population later today and it’s important to that as well.

Just a couple of points, I think it would be really good to work with the UK Government, I'm not sure what the relationships are like just now, but support James and Malcolm's comments on this. I think trying to maximise the resource that we have is absolutely vital and hopefully you know that relationship will work going forward.

Just a couple of points.

One was on the voucher scheme, and Robbie I think we spoke about this before is it evident to the average person across Scotland that the voucher scheme is available and where to go? I've got the website there. But do we promote it enough?

And really, just picking up the points in the last speaker, other than the technology, are there any other blockers that slow down progress? But just, you know, really well done so far.

And let's sort out that last 1%. Thanks.

Shona Robison:

Thanks Alistair, and I've got Màiri and I don’t see anybody else, but will then go back to Robbie after that. Thanks.

Màiri NicAonghais:

Thank you, Cabinet secretary, just a very quick comment that Bòrd na Gàidhlig will be very supportive of a joined up approach and the person who would be working on that would be Ealasaid MacDonald, who's our new CEO, who is well acquainted with working with UK Government. So that might be a help.

I have to apologize, she's not able to be here today.

Congratulations on all the work.

I mean very, very useful, hugely important to the Gaelic economy and just like everyone else said, it's that other poor soul whose houses behind a beautiful hill isn't there yet with the connectivity. It's important you know the continuing to every single last person because it's vital and awell done and thank you very much.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Màiri.

And we'll pick up on your offer there in terms of connections, we want to use all of those, backdoor connections and front door connections to try and get the point across about the program, the Project Gigabit and the VHTR consultation.

So Robbie, I am going to ask you if you could come back on the key points and questions that people had, if that's alright.

Robert McGhee:

Happy to do that, and I guess just give and hopefully I noted everything that was asked, but you can shou  if there's anything that I missed.

I mean on Councillor Stockan’s points, obviously we've talked a bit about project Gigabit. I think it is more of a market led intervention and in terms of the market directing where the investment goes, I think this and quite a lot that we can do to influence UK government on that.

And I think as we've talked about collective approach, I think is going to be the most effective.

I think in terms of the points that Councillor Stockan raised on vouchers and I guess we can't double fund. So if we are supporting a company to deliver superfast connection, we obviously can't subsidise that with another superfast connection.

But what we can do is, we can subsidise on a step change basis if you want to call it that. So if we are in an area and a superfast connection is delivered through vouchers. That premises, if it's just a superfast connection will still be eligible for an upgrade to Gigabit.

So the step change principle applies, so it's not a case that that by virtue of that premises having received a superfast connection that will somehow be frozen out of Gigabit.

So I think that's hopefully useful clarification.

Obviously at the moment we are working quite closely with Ofcom, just in terms of the market and looking across the market. The various players begging small, all of whom I guess are impacted by the financial climate and I guess there are concerns and all the you know, there may well be some fragility in the market.

We've not seen too many failures of ISP's or network providers but Ofcom have got a fairly robust process that exists to protect consumers and ensure a continuity of service.

If there were to be any instances of suppliers going into administration or struggling to maintain service delivery. So there needs to be notice that's given to consumers, and then Ofcom have got a process in place where they would look for other suppliers to step in. So there's a fairly well established process, and that does exist nationally.

So it's probably, you know that there's point out something specific that needs to relate itself to the voucher scheme, but we do speak very regularly to Ofcom just on that point around the wider market.

I guess Malcolm's point and just he obviously mentioned that when there are network outages that point around, it can sometimes be quite slow. Again, we work really, really closely with industry across the piece and our critical national infrastructure colleagues, just to really understand their plans around resilience and as Jason pointed out in his presentation, the 16 new subsea cables and that were deployed last summer will massively improve resilience.

But there are other things that are and that are kind of adding to that as well. So the availability of low earth orbit satellite as a backup option is something that again I think we will see being brought into play that will avoid and some of the lengthier outages the some of our Island communities in particular had to contend with over recent years.

In terms of Aoife’s point from NatureScot, I guess we'd aimed at sort of the 4G infill programme, the 55 masts IS the one bit of this that we can control and we aimed to make that program a bit of a beacon of best practice.

What we can't control is commercial deployment and in particular shared rural network which is a kind of partnership between UK government and industry which is very much industry led and we are starting to see some behaviours that I think we'd probably describe as less than optimal, in terms of the built environment. We're obviously seeking to influence both industry but also UK government in terms of how shared rural network program has been delivered, and obviously we're feeding the lessons learned from the 4G infill program as well.

On Alistair's point just at the end I mean I guess I would say the relationship, just to reassure, the relationship that we have with the UK Government is positive. I think we can work with them and can make progress in terms of delivering project Gigabit.

I think Alistair asked about vouchers and other reasons and other blockers why take-up has not been as soon as we might have been as fulsome as expected. We have done a lot of marketing and targeted that marketing. I guess I would say that the whole process from the end user point of view, from the beneficiary point of view, it is comparatively onerous. You've kind of got to engage with suppliers you actually got to put in some of the hard yards yourself, and I think that's why we would always see a kind of procurement, a contract that just builds across the piece has been a far more straightforward means of delivering connectivity.

But I guess what we’re trying to do is make it as easy as possible. So we’ve got a supplier portal that gives wider industry the information around what premises are eligible. We’ve got a kind of how to guide for end-users which hopefully is as straight forward as it can be and we’re always looking to tailor that based on feedback as well.

We’re doing a lot of work to try and make that linkage between the beneficiary and the supplier as seamless as possible. But there’s always going to be limits to what vouchers can do. Which is why contracted coverage such as that being delivered by R-100 and hopefully, through project Gigabit in due course I think is going to be the most effective way of delivering those connections.

I'll let Jason and Rachel, I don’t know if there’s anything  I missed. Hopefully I picked up most of the points, but you can let me know if I advertently missed the point that you raised.

Jason Short:

We'll try and underline what Robbie said, just on a couple of things.

So fault resolution times is an interesting one. It's worth remembering that what we're doing now on R-100 is we're putting in full fibre connections and as a large part of that they go underground. So the number of poles that are in use reduces, and fibre is a little more resilient, certainly when it's underground.

So not only should you see fault resolutions times with the full fibre solution improve, but you should also see faults drop in deeply rural areas. So, as time goes on, as we roll more out on R-100, as a Project Gigabit comes along, we should see some improvements in that area.

I know I feel the frustration that everyone has with 2026 timescales. We are doing everything we can to accelerate the build here.

We're constantly looking at the plans, we're constantly working with Openreach and part of that also is we're constantly looking at where the market might be going and re-evaluating whether we need to subsidize in those areas.

So there are some areas right across Scotland and into the Highlands and Islands where commercial coverage may suddenly be going. Where we have gone, we were planning to go previously.

We stop a subsidy in those areas. It allows us to go a little bit further and in the outer areas.

And, the other one. Ok, so vouchers and voucher take up and use. The other comment I would…
The areas that we have seen highest take up on vouchers. Are some of those areas where the local authorities are most engaged with us at an operational level. So some areas have digital officers who work not only with us, but with communities and with the suppliers to help find opportunities for voucher schemes to go out.

I think that's proven very, very effective in those areas where it is and we're constantly looking and trying to work with the local authorities and the special points of contact to try and improve that. Ok.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Jason.

Uh, Rachel, do you have anything to add?

Rachael Darroch:

I think just probably a little bit on the local awareness, just building on what Jason and Robbie said. I think it is a fair point that we've tried to address over the years, around the awareness of the voucher scheme, and you know the website as the programs main communication tool.

But as Jason said, we're seeing local authorities give funding to posts to do the kind of Digital engagement stuff to quite a high level of success, I think it's fair. Both through the vouchers, but also from a contract side. So we're actually seeing take up of service. We've had, you know think it comes last year possibly, one of the local authorities we worked with, they put in R-100 leaflets into their annual council tax letter, so there were driving interest and awareness through that.

So we're really keen to continue working with all the local authorities on kind of innovative and different approaches as to how we can drive awareness both of properties that are eligible for the voucher scheme but, also to make sure when the contracted builds’ actually taking place that individuals are aware that they can have access to that service. That they then just pick whichever ISP, and again you know looking at the kind of the benefits realisation, as to you know what it is at the program is actually trying to achieve.

That's all. Thank you.

Shona Robison:

Thanks very much, Rachel.

Well, look, thanks for all of it, the presentation and the questions.

I think one of the key actions from that is to have a Convention approach to the UK Government around Project Gigabit and the ‘Very Hard to Reach’ issues around the cost of installation. So we'll gather that as part of the summary that Officials are working on, for agreement after the meeting.

And I'm going to now give you an extra 5 minutes almost or for your lunch. We will come back at 12:45, when the next agenda item is the Depopulation Action Plan.

So I'll see you all at 12:45. Thanks.


Shona Robison:

Good afternoon everyone. I see people just logging back on and I hope you managed to get a bite to eat, a cup of coffee or even both, and a stretch of the legs.

So thank you for coming back so timely and we are going to move straight into the next item, which is on addressing, the Depopulation Action Plan.

And you have again, some information that has been provided to you in the form of a paper. I’ll pass to Mike Andrews, who’s population team leader at Scottish Government to talk to that paper in a second. I just want to make some opening remarks of my own.

I think I don't need to tell all of you that there's no quick fix for the challenges that lead to depopulation and importantly, there's no one agency or organization or level of government that can resolve it. That's why we're working with regional, local and community partners to ensure that we design and deliver the sustainable solutions to these challenges.

The Ministerial Population Task Force has committed to publishing an Addressing Depopulation Action Plan, which will include a place-based focus on a mixture of rural, island and select urban locations across Scotland which are experiencing depopulation. An action plan to support repopulation of rural and island communities is also a National Islands Plan commitment.

The Scottish Government is committed to taking a genuine partnership approach here, which is why we have engaged with a wide range of local, regional and national stakeholders through the summer and autumn of this year to ensure that the final plan is coherent. That it's based on the collaboration of all organizations and reflects action which can be taken from community to national level to best support communities to thrive. In doing so, we are aiming to fully realise the Verity House Agreements maxim of ‘local by default, national by agreement.’

So, with those opening remarks, I'm going to pass over to Mike Andrews, after which we will have a discussion thereafter.

Ok, thanks. Over to you, Mike.

Mike Andrews:

Thanks very much DFM.

I'm just waiting on some slides being popped up by Secretariat colleagues, but just by way of a little bit of back story, it was actually at the March 2022 CoHI, the cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and islands announced the development of this piece of work.

So it's good to be able to speak with you about 18 months on to be able to update on what's been it a really extensive piece of internal and external engagement for my team building this together. So if we can just jump onto the next slide, please have a quick discussion about the origins of this.

I mean the origins of this work are multi-pronged as mentioned there by the Deputy First Minister from the National Islands Plan, the Population Strategy published in 2021 and now the commitment to publish the Addressing Depopulation Action Plan being included in the FM’s Policy prospectus in Spring 2023. And, as recently as September, featuring as a new program for government commitment.

So I think all of this demonstrates pretty clearly the Scottish Government's commitment to this as a strategic, multifaceted issue and it's very much been a joint effort between my team, the population team and colleagues in the islands policy team as well to bring this work together through the course of this year. If we can move on to the next slide.

The paper notes that an approach to the Addressing Depopulation Action Plan’s development was agreed during the June 2023 Ministerial Population taskforce cycle. But as a reminder, that approach was split into three distinct work packages.

We have one which sets the policy context and the statistical context, and strategically frames the issue as understood by Scottish Government. We're looking to then set out the range of direct and indirect supportive interventions being delivered across the responsibilities held by Scottish Ministers and then also set out a range of targeted interventions and more localized or regional level. Either delivered or supported by Scottish Government and within current limitations with regard to resource and budget.

So to set out the strategic context of this issue, we've drawn extensively from work undertaken by our expert advisory group on migration and population, and it produced a report last year entitled ‘Place Based Approaches to Population Challenges’.

Now, specifically in taking forward that work that makes a commitment, also first made at the previous CoHI, and this reviewed the concept of applying a zonal approach to targeting interventions. It noted that while potentially helpful, if applied correctly, that repopulation zones wholesale should not be implemented unilaterally because of the risk of unintended consequences that can flow from that, and as such should not form the bedrock of Scottish Government policy in this space.

So the group instead found that being genuinely placed based involved delivering different interventions in different places, tailored to addressing local needs and harnessing the power of local leadership where it identifies challenges and opportunities.

So it's through that methodology that we've sought to explore and define our response to this policy issue within type fiscal constraints. Delivering in line with what stakeholders have told us they wish us to explore or deliver.

So as you can see on this slide there, with regard to this action plan we we're defining addressing depopulation as a kind of macro topic, as identifying drivers influencing depopulation at Community level and these drivers may or may not apply from one area to another, and showcasing the current and future role of regional and local actors. There's a short list there, but a longer list within the wider document.

But the main point here is about delivering collaboratively to support communities, economies and public services. Then finally setting out the role which Scottish Government will play at a national level in supporting these local objectives.

So the process to and build this action plan over the past six to nine months has encompassed 2 core components. Internally we've worked with a very large number of internal Scottish Government policy teams to understand where their work either indirectly or directly supports this agenda.

This was particularly important when it was newly raising the issue of population outcomes within the work of a policy space, and you'll see a range of policy areas which will be featured, noted at Paragraph 11 within the paper, I think.

But also note that nearly everything discussed in today's meeting actually features in some way within the action plan, albeit viewed through a population line.

So as part of this, we're looking to kind of identify supportive actions, whether that's totally new for the purposes of the action plan or more just shining a light on existing quality work which is ongoing elsewhere in Scottish Government and to draw a distinct line between that work and our population outcomes.

Externally as well, we've worked with a range of a range of organisations and partners through the form of a working group, which we formed in summer. That comprised: local authorities, a range of enterprise agencies, COSLA and other organizations such as Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Scottish Rural Action as well.

So as part of that, we've been very much part of a two way conversation about written and verbal engagement and to make sure that we're able to assess and take on board as much feedback as possible.

And indeed, with regards to CoHI specifically, we've undertaken a really strong process over the past few months with the CoHI Population Working Group as well. Ensuring that those that are leading on this work at a local and regional level are not only acknowledged within the plan, but also able to feed into it.

I just wanted to take a second to say that because this piece of work has moved really quickly through autumn with a wide range of feedback, even received since this was originally scheduled to take place as an in person meeting in October.

The drafting process has moved on substantially and so we continue to incorporate new content, and be as collaborative as possible with our approach in the run up to publication; and then delivering an example of this is that following early feedback from a range of stakeholders about the importance of housing in this work, we've worked really closely to be able to further substantiate it’s role in terms of being a factor in informing outcomes relating to population. And, also to highlight the action to be taken forward as part of the recently published rural and islands Housing action plan.

We've also incorporated known gaps that we kind of found in our drafting around the inclusion of just transition, for example, and also on how we establish our approach to monitoring and evaluation.

On the former, I reflect on the recent comments from the First Minister, where he noted that addressing both the climate crisis and future population challenges are the two biggest challenges facing Scotland's future generations.

So it's really important that we find a way to dovetail these two policy areas when it makes good sense and with regard to evaluation, we're harnessing the expertise of the expert advisory group that I mentioned before, to make sure that we're embedding evaluation into what we are going to deliver from the very, very start.

In terms of a new funded areas of work in this space, just to quickly overview that. Through the Islands team, we are looking to continue funding of existing Community Settlement officer roles within the current financial year in Northwest Highland, Western Isles and Argyll and Bute.

And I'd also highlight the papers inclusion of case studies from these community settlement officers, which is something we really value and are keen to build on going forward.

We're also using some of the learning from the Population working group here, to deliver new targeted interventions and research work in Inverclyde and Dumfries and Galloway. I just stress that as part of something which really shows how, some of the work that CoHI has led over the past few years is truly informing our practice going on Scotland wide.

Then finally, establishing and addressing depopulation fund, which has already invited affected local authority areas to light touch bid for available funding to take forward initiatives locally which will support population attraction and retention and continue to build the case and capacity for delivering a rural visa pilot if this or a future UK government agrees.

So in line with the Verity House Agreement as well, there were taking this forward in partnership with COSLA. If I can just jump onto the last site please.

Thanks. So next steps for this work include finalizing the action plan with input from the Ministerial Population taskforce over the next few weeks.

Indeed, publishing the action plan that's now looking likely to be in the very early stages of 2024. Confirming funding arrangements for the new commitments which sit within the confines of the work and as part of that, establishing a delivery group comprising delivery partners, many of whom are on this call and other key stakeholders alongside our independent academic experts.

Finally, in terms of immediate next steps, we will look to harness small area census data when published next year to allow us to consider the nature of our targeted interventions at a small area level and understand if they're pointing at the right places.

In closing, I would stress the point that ultimately this work establishes a position for Scottish Government in respect to this challenge, builds on the National Islands Plan population strategy and the local and regional leadership shown by the likes of yourselves as part of the Convention. Reflecting available resource and the depth of the challenge, is not intended to single handedly resolve the issue in one single sweeping move, nor would it be appropriate for Scottish Government to seek to do so unilaterally when we know different challenges exist between different geographies.

But instead it establishes a platform for joint working with a key set of objectives underpinning it at a national level for the first time, CoHI members will of course be key partners in supporting success with this over the coming period. So I've very much looking forward to continuing this conversation with many of you in time to come.

I'm just going to pause there DFM and I'll pass back to yourself. Thanks.

Shona Robison:

Thanks very much Mike. Some important areas covered there that I think will no doubt cover and come back to in the discussion.

So Sandy, you’re quick out of the blocks with your hand up there. So I'll take you first.

Sandy Bremner:

Hey, thank you very much Deputy First Minister, and thanks for the chance to speak. For those of you who don't know me, I'm the new convenor of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and looking forward to seeing everybody in person.

I'd like to welcome this paper, and if you're wondering why somebody from the Cairngorms is looking to speak about the depopulation action plan, it's summed up in the first line of the paper. That's the aim of ensuring Scotland's population is sustainably balanced across the country.

Obviously, as we know, it's not. The Cairngorms isn't alone in losing economically active people at a really, really worrying rate and the biggest single issue affecting most of us here is affordable housing. The gap between wages and house prices has continued to grow since the National Park was created 20 years ago and the wider national problems identified very clearly in this paper, it was central to the issues we tackled first thing this morning and I'm sure we're all looking forward to building on the rural and island housing action plan.

As you've just said, Deputy First Minister, there's no quick fix to this and just make one plea and that's what the government is bold in its approach. If the housing problem isn't cracked, there's a very serious risk that key government targets are going to be missed. That's on communities, business and nature.

There are some great pilot projects being developed just now, like the one involving Highland Council, in Aviemore, that's supported by the Scottish Government housing team. But it's only one site and maybe 200 plus houses. We need government support. We need to be able to access more land for purposes that are essential to our communities, ideally at land values that are real rather than inflated by expectations of high profits.

And that's especially important, Deputy First Minister, given the budget challenges you outlined this morning. We need to make best use of public money for affordable housing instead of seeing it swallowed up in a bidding war for land and property.

And again, as you said this morning, we need to be innovative in looking at financing opportunities. That's why I'd encourage government to help by exploring a reset in the economics of affordable housing. To take the kind of socially driven approach that government did in post War Scotland that paved the way for the development of our new towns.

Obviously done sympathetically in tune with the needs of the Highlands and Islands, and I'd commend the work of the Scottish Land Commission on this and their paper on publicly created land value.

Uh, just to summarized and finalised. Basically, our planning policies are only as effective as they delivery mechanisms behind them. There's an opportunity here to ramp up delivery of affordable housing, provide more certainty for developers who are being discouraged at the moment by some of our delivery targets, and to make far better use of public money that's under so much pressure to tackle a problem that shows every sign of getting worse.

So we're looking forward at the National Park to contributing to that discussion. Thank you.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Sandy, and thanks for your attendance at the Convention and your contribution and just made. I think there's a lot in what you have said and some of which is already happening, but some food for thought. I mean you talk about best use of public money, I think I said this earlier on as well, we need to look at the best use of public assets. The public sector itself has a lot of land that, now whether that land is in the right place and the availability of it in terms of time frame.

But I think it's something we don't, we have not explored enough and something that I think we absolutely must do, but your point about land value and cost is a is a key one.

I see that we have Raymond and then Malcolm wishing to comment. So Raymond first.

Raymond Bremner:

Thank you again and there are several points I'd like to make in respect to the paper.

As as a Council we've provided detailed feedback directly to the Scottish Government, as you’ll all know, on the Addressing Depopulation Action Plan.

So I mean I would welcome the Scottish Governments commitment to tackling the depopulation crisis facing Scotland and Scotland’s rural areas and I would also welcome ongoing dialogue and as you know, this workstream develops and we're willing to engage at both an Official and the Ministerial level to help inform and this kind of critical area of work.

But in in terms of the actual addressing depopulation fund I wonder, you know £180,000 in the current financial year when you split that between 3 Councils while that's welcome, you know, I suspect that it really is insufficient to deliver strategic long term benefit and I'd maybe look for some sort of comment on that.

And in terms of the rural community hubs, the actions are really encouraging and we know that with the ongoing pressures on public sector budgets and as previously mentioned, enabling and empowering the delivery of community led and managed services is really going to be quite essential.

In terms of housing, and we've already said this is a critical factor in stabilizing and growing the rural population. The single biggest challenge the to the delivery of affordable housing and housing for businesses, is for us is the excessively high cost of delivering housing in rural areas.

The negative cost value relationship renders an awful lot of projects unviable here in in the Highlands. As you probably know, transport for me, and you heard what I said in respect of the transport paper earlier, this is possibly for me even more important than housing.

Access to transport and supporting transport infrastructure for me is essential to the sustainability of rural communities and even though budgets are challenged, you know. I wouldn't like us to be seen to be saying how important transport is and then to see budget challenges hitting transport investment and ultimately hitting the sustainability of our communities.

So for me, the section on transport doesn't provide confidence in terms of the paper, that there are measures being developed that will genuinely support the growth of our most vulnerable rural areas in Highland, and we need to be seen to be doing that.

Education, I'd be happy to enter into, you know, early engagement with the Scottish Government and COSLA to address substandard conditions in schools. I think  I've already said I've already written to the government about this and how this would help to support and sustain some of our local rural communities in Highland. I've already written to the Scottish Government, given our inability to secure LEAP funding.

And then you've got the issue of HAC and RAAC that we and the Scottish Government are having to tackle. But here in Highland, our school condition contrasts starkly with the Scottish average and given the geography that we are charged with covering, we obviously are challenged more than many other areas in terms of the sustainability of our school estate and therefore our communities.

It's good to see reference to Gaelic in this paper and in particular to ADAP and the recognition of the importance that the language has and many of our rural areas and Highland.

Lastly, Health and Social Care that we know that the shortage of workers in the health and social care sector for us, and in many other rural areas is a major issue for us here in Highland. Particularly in social work and care services for older adults given the geography that we have. So you know we welcome the initiative on support in the right direction and also for other engagement around the delivery of SDS.

For me, a sustained and systematic impact would be greatly strengthened by greater alignment between government departments and the synthesis and simplification of funding streams, because that's not sufficiently apparent in the plan is, as currently drafted, I consider. There also has to be an understanding of the compound impact in rural areas of historic underfunding combined with high cost of service delivery and widespread market failure, which we refer to previously.

Transport Scotland referred to that, for example, in Caithness, and the impact of these factors makes itself felt across every aspect of service delivery and drives people away from rural areas, therefore hitting our ability to be able to sustain our communities.

So and the last thing for me would be, you know, we need continued support for work being carried out by the like of the Community Settlement officer in North West Sutherland where they're working with communities and businesses to increase service supply. So quite a lot there that I hope makes some valued contribution to the discussion that we've got going here today.

Thanks very much.

Shona Robison:

Very much so Raymond, and your challenge to us around greater alignment of government departments and flexibility of funding streams, I think is absolutely a challenge that we should heed and take away.

I mean, one of the reasons for the rural delivery plan was just that point to, you know, try to ensure that we are working outside of silos. That's not just Scottish Government, but certainly within the Scottish Government, but also across public sector organizations more generally. We need to get out of silos, we need to look at how we bring funding streams together in a more effective way.

So I guess one thought, you mentioned the LEAP program for this discussions going on around what is the next iteration of that, what comes next and there's something about whether there can be a link up of if a community is and is looking to develop a new school is there potential to the link into that for affordable housing, potentially other public services. So that there's a bringing together of potential funds that could help to deliver something more impactful. And, given the higher costs which, they're not going to go away anytime soon, for all of the logistical reasons we understand.

So you know, how can we bring different elements of funding together in a way that can have more impact? And I think given the constraints on budgets, for me that has to be something that we look at and that might mean more flexibility and less constraint around those funding lines and criteria, and all of that. And I think that is something that I will take away to challenge the Scottish Government generally around because we need to, in tough times, make these things easier and more aligned.

So anyway, I will stop there because I see Malcolm and then Emma and then Euan want to come in.

Malcolm Burr:

Thank you, deputy. First Minister and I agree with Raymond and I agree very much with the remarks that that you've made there.

I mean that is something which as you know the Comhairle has been trying to do and will be speaking to your colleague Jenny Gilruth about this in about a week's time. Uh, this combination of services and in Barra and Vatersay, and that's a there is there is a real opportunity there to make exactly that kind of progress, but just a couple of quick points.

 Really welcome this paper and the significant number of priority actions have inevitably been identified through it, but it's very important for the ADAP not to become a long list of potential interventions. It really requires a strong focus on the big Four. I would say: Digital, Transport, Housing and Childcare.

I'm delighted to see the reference and work package three, and in your own remarks though, to public service reform and the need for a viable public sector, and I think we all know around this table without significant public sector reform that that is imperilled in the medium term given the fragilities of island economies and structures. So in welcoming the report and I support the comments that have been made, but I would ask for as much strong focus as possible on the core issues that very much, yes, absolutely let's bring our assets together and use them collaboratively, so that they can be more effective in a time of deep financial constraints.

Thank you.

Shona Robison:

Thanks Malcolm.

I'm not going to come in on the back of everybody's intervention but I’m now going to do exactly that, so apologies, but something you said they are I want to capture.

Mary McAllan is on the call here. Mary supports me in the public sector reform agenda, and very much about how do we do things differently. I'm quite a I'm a believer in show and tell. I think sometimes we can talk about things until the cows come home, but actually showing how something can be done can be more powerful in overcoming some of the barriers and working through, how do you how do you deconstruct some of the barriers that are there to make the more impactful use of the constrained public money that we have?

So I think Mary, one of the things we want to take away is you know, how do we make sure that with the willing partners, always a coalition of the willing, those who want to get on and try some of these new ways of working out. We should be looking to do that in a way that can show how it can be done differently. So we'll take that away if you don't mind Mary as a bit of a an action point, they from what has just been said, right, Emma, you and then end Mary. Emma.

Emma Macdonald:

Thanks very much, Deputy, First Minister, and I think there's lots of interesting points in this paper, and I especially I really liked the case studies.

I think they really helpful because they really there's a lot of learning there for other island authorities and I don't want to repeat what's been said already.

So I'll be quite brief, but I think we can't underestimate the impacts that our higher cost of living has on our remote and rural areas and having things like childcare is a focus I think is really important because we know that that's a real barrier for people choosing to live in some of these areas because they just simply can't afford to do so.

We've and actually got some funding, so we can explore some of the childcare and some of our harder to and we know where there is none.

So that's really helpful, but I think childcare really needs to be up there as a a real priority in tackling some of these challenges. That's all for me.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Emma. I concur entirely in your point about childcare, and it was interweaved with housing, transport and digital earlier on. I think it absolutely critical.

So we have a Euan, then Mary, and then I think it's James wants to come in.

Euan McVicar:

Thank you, Deputy First Minister just wanted to make a few remarks on behalf of Crown Estate Scotland picking up on the issues around land that were raised earlier.

I agree that lands got an important role to play in tackling some of these issues and as a large landowner, and with an ability to invest and land, I think Crown Estate Scotland may have some role to play here. I really just want to draw to Convention Members attention that we're currently going through a corporate planning process.

We've already had some engagement with a number of local authorities around the COSLA Conference, but we'd be very keen to explore whether with other Convention Members, there might be particular areas where we could assist, where we should be thinking about building this into our corporate planning.

Some of the emerging themes we've already seen as being potentially areas for us to look at in terms of future activity are very relevant to this. Looking at how other states can be better managed to deliver better social and economic benefits in rural areas, looking at where are new market opportunities for us to invest and also how we work with communities around wealth building.

So really just an encouragement for people who would like to engage with us around specific opportunities that might be relevant to their areas to do that and get us to factor that into their thinking because I think there is part of the coordination piece that we can help with.

Shona Robison:

I think that’s an excellent offer Euan and one that I would encourage people to take up.

And again, it's just comes back that joining the dots and looking at what every organization can bring it to the table.

Mary and then I've got James and then Alan.

Mary McAllan:

And so, deputy First Minister, I think that you're absolutely right.

You know, there's a there's a key thing here which we're seeing across all the public service reform considerations that were already thinking about in government about join up.

And it strikes me that we've also got some. We've obviously got some really good underlying policies and we've considered, we're considering this one. We've considered others earlier in this meeting.

I think what we're trying to do though is probably find lenses that to look through around the four priorities that have been mentioned in this paper.

One of the things that struck me in the earlier conversation and is the whole issue of scale and whether you can get, you know, and we've already, we've just had engagement with very significant investors and around scale in the government space and we've had some helpful principles that have been have been identified and, you know, inform deeply by people who operate in investment circles of great significance in the private sector.

And, of course and we know this from other things that we you know we basically need to gather we get we need to gather opportunities together and we need to be able to present them to the marketplace where we can't rely on public funding, in a way which encourages significant investment.

And I think the public sector shifts that you've mentioned earlier around land and buildings are really important because it strikes me that, you know, if you think about, if I think back to Fort William, which I was quite involved with at one stage, it's not just about having the investment capability, it's actually finding land that you can you can build on because of the local land conditions and things like that.

And what you find is and actually, this was also the case in the context of the Stirling City deal. You can actually you can initiate development very, very significant development if you think about public service assets in a different way and you know there'll be all sorts of rules in the Green Book that I can't remember at the moment, but there could be something.

I mean, I'm just thinking off the top of my head, but there's maybe something that we could be doing here with those assets, which would help to compensate, we'd have to get some return on it, but would help to compensate for the additional costs inflation is creating.

So I think there's a load of thinking there and I know HIE are really engaged in all of this and I think it's really great that the Regional Economic Partnership is, it's sitting thinking about these issues.

We're working with the islands in Argyll and Bute, some of the islands in Argyll and Bute, on how you can look again at the Governance and the arrangements around certain types of provision of public services. At least in part that's about recognising the challenges that exist, trying to develop and maintain staffing and services when everything's under a bit of pressure financially. But you know fundamentally the driver of all of that is about better outcomes, and the whole issue around population is existential. So we interestingly, in the island space for that work we've been doing with Malcolm and colleagues in Orkney, and we're talking to Argyll and Bute as well.

It's really started from. What if that's the big problem? And it's not the same problem everywhere, but if one of the big problems, the acute problems in particular areas of the Highlands and Islands is population or depopulation, then what are the factors that are driving that and what do we have to do to kind of respond?

So I'm quite happy, Deputy First Minister, to take forward any work that is appropriate and I'll talk to colleagues on this call and colleagues that are managing the CoHI today to see what actions. I think we're talking earlier this week. So we can maybe have a conversation about how you would like that to be developed. Thanks.

Shona Robison:

Thanks very much.

Mary and we'll certainly do that. I think it's a bit picking up the piece of some of the things that can happen and so we'll pick up on that.

I've got James, Alan and then Màiri.

James Stockan:

And thank you very much DFM. As one of the areas that doesn't have the figures to show depopulation over the last while,  we were very happy even this was set off to look more intensely at the areas that did have you know the numbers drop.

But we were also really keen to make sure that people realized that it's not just numbers, it's the demography of the population that has huge effect and we've had a huge number of older people moving into our community and that's going to cause a ticking time bomb.

So we're really supportive of the work for us to get the learning at the other side of that because that could even be a worse outcome when you've got nobody to, to actually service the older population.

But there was something we brought up at CoHI, a year ago now, which was an opportunity that I thought might be worthwhile pursuing and it is on that basis of people studying postgraduate studies in the remote areas. And, it takes in Emma's point where she spoke about the cost of living being more, a supplement for people to come in early areas at a young age. These people are very often sticky in our communities, and it's that age group of people we want to come and stay and we have found that particularly in Stromness in Orkney, in and around Heriot Watt, where I have a very diverse nationalities of people who've come and wanted to stay.

And I just think if that's a piece of learning that could be spread out in the Highlands and Islands, you know, for people who come and study at the at the last point, not undergraduates, cause undergraduates often go somewhere else. But postgraduates often stay if there's an opportunity for them to stay.

So I think that's something that we should continue looking at and we did look at some islands.  he island's funding that came that came through, the islands team to do something about that. I don't know where it went, but I think I still think there's one or two things we should pursue in that area.

Thank you.

Shona Robison:

Yeah, James, we'll check that out in terms of where that is, but it sounds are very practical initiative, so thanks for that.

I've got Alan, and then Màiri then Vicki. Alan.

Alan Hill:

Thanks Deputy First minister.

Just to again, like everybody else, to welcome the report and agree with most of the comments that have been made, and I think particularly your more recent one in terms of picking up the pace, because we've been discussing the issues around housing for a while and it would be good maybe out of today to get some timelines and processes for how we're going to start to take this forward.

Taking some of the other points that were made earlier in terms of, I think it was Raymond made the point, about a cost of building housing in island and rural locations, whether maybe there could be a separate stream that sits alongside that to look at the cost and things we might be able to do.

I'm thinking in terms of that certainly discussions we've had that the UK Islands Forum in, in terms of looking at what the UK Government can could bring to the table here, and we had discussions previously around about VAT costs on build and build materials and whether something that could be looked at there.

Lastly, it was just if there was any or to look forward to receiving some kind of methodology or round about the disbursement of the ADAP funding and the conditions that will be attached to that going forward. Thanks.

Shona Robison:


I'll and we'll pick up your challenge around the timelines and processes and just while you're speaking, I was thinking that, you know, there are some innovative housing solutions. I know many rural areas have used off site construction where essentially. It’s just the sort of start and finish that you need local construction companies for and these things come all fully fitted plumbing electrics that the whole shebang and they can be put down.

So for areas where you know where we’re talking about maybe, you know ,half a dozen units, it can be quite competitive and in price. So I know that some areas have already taken that forward, but it definitely something that should be in the mix.

Umm, so I have Màiri and then Vicki.

Màiri NicAonghais:

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Someone stole my thunder again. I was going to mention pace as well.

So what I would say is we just feel change is taking too long. It's just communities are very active and in Uist, I live in Uist, and we have a lot of stuff going on here But, it's just taking too long to come to fruition and we do hear the families coming back and there numbers and so on, but there are also families leaving, and that's probably not recorded in the same way, but I would just say I agree with what everyone else is saying. Communities do know what they want, they are proactive, but it's just, and through no fault of the communities, it's just taking too long to change.

Thank you.

Shona Robison:

And I think is a fair challenge Màiri and you know, I'm someone who always wants everything done yesterday so I feel your frustration, and sometimes there are good reasons that things have to be worked through, but without a doubt we need to try and expedite things. Look at why do things take so long?

I know that sometimes with the planning process, land issues are not easy to overcome, but we need to absolutely focus on reducing some of those timelines.

I've got Vicki and then Lorraine.

Vicki Nairn:

Uh, thank you, DFM, and it's really just a point really echoing what James was saying in terms of actually the importance of education and it plays both in its role in sort of revitalizing communities, but also in terms of that depopulation aspect.

So certainly at UHI we have postgraduate provision right across our region, including up in Orkney as well and one of the common areas of feedback that we get is that we would and we could recruit far more postgraduate students actually. But what they struggle to find is actually accommodation, suitable accommodation that they can move to with their families, make a life with and then actually stay and contribute and quite often what you'll find is students will come to do, say, a PhD in research. But then they'll actually want to stay and work with industry and actually make a contribution to the economy.

So we're actually we're working with Heriot Watt and with RGU across the patch to actually see how we can do this, but it's really, really difficult if they can't find accommodation.

And I think it's just a plea for me, really.

Is in the total solutions if we could look at the place that education plays in that agenda. And, actually that link between accommodation, business, skills, industry and inward attraction, because again, as James has said, we have people from all over the world, who want to come to our region especially with the green and blue economy and the various growth deals we've got going on.

But you only have to look at some of the Facebook sites where people are appealing for accommodation and trying to find accommodation, to make you realize just how tricky it is and then also affordable accommodation.

So just a little window from the education side that we could we could recruit and attract a lot more postgrad students if we can get the accommodation for them.

Thank you.

Shona Robison:

We'll certainly make sure that's noted as an action point and an outcome from the meeting at Lorraine.

Lorraine Lowrie:

Thanks DFM, for those who don't know me I'm Lorraine Lowrie are working islands policy for Scottish Government. It was just to reassure Councillor Stocking that that work hasn't fallen by the wayside, that it is still ongoing.

Coinneach Morrison and our team, who is our education lead for the strategic objective in the National Islands Plan, has been in dialogue with Sandy Kerr about this.

And I realized it was some time ago that you brought it but it has been through various kind of guidance since then. The work is ongoing and we can get you an update on that, which I'll also send to yourself, Vicki and as well for your interest to.

Shona Robison:

Uh, thanks, Lorraine. Paul, you want to come in?

Paul Steele:

Thank you, Deputy First Minister, I apologise for missing most of the meeting.

It's relevant to the point I'm going to make - my ferry was cancelled so I had to take an alternate route and try and come across. I came on the Alfred, which is great actually, but we're talking about population. One of the key things that people bring up to me is transport and connectivity, not just within the islands, but you know, getting across the mainland and more and more often it's not so much ferries, although the ferry situation is well known, it's flights as well, it's how often these are cancelled and how expensive they are.

So when people are requiring, you know, to get to hospital appointments or even just away to visit family, they’re almost being priced out of the market.

There an example I’ve been using recently is there was a funeral in Uist and the family member who came home for the funeral had to pay £500 for a return flight from Glasgow. It’s affordable to live in the Isles when these are the kind of places that are being put to us.

So I think it's really key that that's one of the areas that's looked at. I think everyone else touched on most of the other points that I was going to make so, so I'll leave it there, but thank you very much.

Shona Robison:

Thanks Paul, and I'm sorry that you had that disruption in trying to get here to the meeting.

I think what I would say, just to reassure you, is that the issues that you've raised in terms of transport and connectivity were very well explored and covered earlier in the meeting and you'll get a note of the outcomes of that discussion, once that's pulled together after the meeting. So thanks for that.

I'm going to move us on because I'm keen to try and finish by at 2 o’clock as scheduled and we have a substantive item on Maximizing the Net Economic Impact and Socio-Economic Benefit from Energy Developments.

I’m just going to put this light on, because it’s suddenly got very dark here. I think it could even be snowing, which is a bit concerning.

So this item, I think, builds on all the interconnected issues that we've been talking about today and they all run into each other in one way or another. It's an opportunity to really to discuss how we can work together to maximise the benefits from energy developments and the energy transition to net zero.

Very grateful to Moray Council for their work on the paper on this topic; another very good paper that will inform our discussion. Our draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition plan sets out our vision for a future net zero energy system. Realizing this vision will deliver affordable, secure and clean energy, and will of course also benefit communities across Scotland by providing high quality jobs and huge economic opportunities.

We're very committed to ensuring that communities are at the heart of those renewable energy ambitions. That's why we continue to invest in Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) that supports communities to engage and benefit from the energy transition. To date, CARES has advised over 1000 organizations and provided over £61 million in funding to over 800 projects and we continue to encourage developers to offer community benefits and shared ownership opportunities as standard, on all new renewable energy projects, through our good practice principles which have been widely adopted.

I therefore also welcome SSEN’s plans to establish a Community benefit fund. It's encouraging to see their plans to work closely with communities, to develop, deliver tangible benefits from net zero transmission infrastructure projects. The Scottish Government Register of Community benefits shows that in the past 12 months, over £25 million worth of community benefits have been offered to Scottish communities and recently we published the onshore wind sector deal and through the deal, the sector is committed to meet or exceed the principles set out in the good practice principles and to work even more closely with communities.

So I hope the discussion can build on this progress and to take matters forward. So I want to pass on to Jim Grant, who is the head of Economic Growth and Development at Moray Council, to speak to the paper for about 5 minutes. Then I will open up and we'll try to conclude this item just before 2 o’clock.

So thanks Jim.

Jim Grant:

Thank you, Deputy First Minister, I'm just trying to quickly run through these slides.

Basically, the paper is setting out the fantastic opportunity we've got in Highlands and Islands to benefit from government policy and ambition and targets around the renewable energy and the infrastructure that's needed for that.

Highlands and Islands already have 34% of the operational installed renewable capacity in Scotland. But that's going to increase significantly, both with the onshore renewables and offshore renewables over the coming decade.

In terms of Scottish Government policy, as you mentioned, we have the onshore wind sector deal, we've got National Planning Policy or National Planning Framework 4, which sets out a number of policies that are very supportive to renewable energy and actions to address climate change, and we've also got the Scottish Governments control when policy. The one thing all three of those documents have in common is around maximizing net economic impact from energy developments.

If you look at voluntary community benefit and that's been welcomed by communities across the region, it's well established for onshore wind. There isn't really any established practice for other forms of renewable energy. UK government and the autumn statement announced their response to the views on community benefit for infrastructure, particularly grid infrastructure and substations.

On its own I would expect that will be worth over £100 million and for the Highlands and Islands region, but voluntary community benefit does have its challenges, so identification of the benefitting community is a gift in the gift of the developer.

The levels of funding achieved don't always meet the £5k per Megawatt guideline. In fact, if you look at the Highland and Moray operational wind farms, then 80% of the market paying £5k per Megawatt that the average is £2600 per Megawatt. So significantly short of what Scottish Government guidelines are for that voluntary benefit.

The community capacity to spend the funding can be a limiting factor and many communities in an area with greater socio economic needs can be left behind, as they don't have access to that Community benefit fund.

In terms of delivering policy and National Planning Framework 4 in particular, it's looking for community wealth building, maximising economic impact, local and community socio-economic benefit, addressing climate change and enhancing biodiversity and streamlining the planning process.

I'm not sure that could be delivered through a purely voluntary community benefit system. So you mentioned there's SSEN’s consultation on community benefit from the grid, which is effectively what's going to be backed up by the UK government announcements in their Autumn Statement. But there's no place within that for local authorities, or even Highlands and Islands enterprises, the main economic development agencies, to influence the decision making on how's that spent.

So if we go back over the agenda today, and the real issues that have been brought forward, around: digital connectivity, housing, public transport and those population interventions. Potentially we've got hundreds of millions of community benefit that may be achieved but not spent where it's really needed to have a socioeconomic impact in the region, that will make a difference for those.

So the policies ultimately need to be backed up with guidance and tools and including where necessary to be conditioned and secured through a planning system. At the moment, voluntary community benefit is outwith the planning system, and it goes under the Autumn Statement UK Government proposing the same process for the grid infrastructure.

So there are case studies that look at what's truly the opportunity of maximizing economic development from energy developments. Where you look at those case studies, you can see that if a company truly looks to use local companies and develop the local supply chain, it makes a significant difference in terms of local spend and local benefit that comes from those developments.

Highland and Moray Council, we’ve commissioned some work to provide an evidence base for a new approach on socio-economic issues, from energy developments. We hope to bring that forward and to be able to try and use that to perhaps get some control and push things through the planning system. But again, we'll need the tools and the guidance to make that happen.

There's an opportunity, I think for transformational socio-economic impacts, but the powers to do it are lacking. So if you look at the most recent reporters decisions on wind farms, there’s two that struck me recently. Dealing with policy 11C, which is the National Planning Framework policy that requires maximization of economic impact including that local and community benefit.

One reporter said: “The policy 11C, we can't determine what maximization is because of the lack of Scottish Government guidance on it, however we'll take into account the community benefit and because that's positive, it will be an approval.”

The next reporter said: “We can't determine what maximising and that economic impact is because of the lack of Scottish Government guidance, we can't take account of community benefit because that's out with the planning system. From the economic impact that's being delivered there’s a minor benefit and will accept that and give an approval.”

So the policies are delivering for developers, but they're not achieving that government ambition around maximising net economic impact, and they're certainly not delivering for communities in terms of really delivering community wealth building and delivering community benefit in a way that addresses those main socio-economic barriers and issues to economic growth.

Shona Robison:

OK. Thanks for that Jim. Most helpful and quite a quite a challenge in there, but a challenge that if we can overcome and make changes fundamentally to those constraints, then a huge a huge prize at the end of that. I'm going to open up to participants to come in.

Raymond, I see you coming in and then Vicki. Raymond first, thanks.

Raymond Bremner:

Thanks Deputy First minister.

I think that we can see here that, you know we fully support here at Highland, we fully support the development of a new model that can help secure the net economic benefit and long lasting socio- economic benefits. The pipeline of development for the region from renewables is significant and it is really essential that there's a legacy left for the Council.

Although the report is written by Moray Council, many of the key themes contained within are relevant to us here at Highland Council. We're engaged in the study on the community benefits from renewables alongside Moray Council and you know, I believe that's progressing really well.

But as has been detailed, the landscape is changing very rapidly and with the UK Government just announcing the new community benefit program related to electricity transmission infrastructure, it's really essential that the Council and Highland and Island local authorities get in front of this.

Our initial very high level kind of overview is that community benefit could net some £40 million and plus a community benefit in Highland alone and that is just for transmission, never mind hydro, onshore wind and offshore wind.

So I'd suggest that alongside the measures contained in the paper, and I'd welcome feedback on this consideration, that we should be looking at a focused piece of work being undertaken to set out what the basis of what our ask should be for a Highland or depending on the appetite, a Highland and Island Infrastructure fund that's capital based. To allow the Council to meet the needs of our whole area where we are the democratically elected bodies and we represent the local communities across the region.

So I'd suggest that in order to do that that we look at, you know, completing our community wealth building and strategy as soon as possible and that will have a clear focus on the renewable energy opportunity. And set out a very clear strategic intent for the Council to develop a Highland Infrastructure Fund, that community benefits would be channelled through, but overseen by the Council. And then we look at setting a policy and lobbying position for community benefit.

So that should be able to be used for non-council spending activity, that is to say schools, infrastructure, housing and so on, given the financial challenges that we all know that we are facing.

And that we should be investigating how far we can use the National Planning Framework 4 as a tool for change. That we should be looking at lobbying the Scottish Government to make voluntary agreements mandatory, and at the same time keep existing arrangements for communities as they are, but seek an increase in that. Because this is surely about local benefits, we need the tools at our disposal to force large scale developments to contribute to local infrastructure because if you look at the whole past, can we honestly say that for a lot of the Community benefit that's been received through renewable energy, can we actually say that it has been best value in terms of the outcomes for a number of those Community investment projects.

That we should be developing a model as far as part of this activity for Co-investment in renewables and renewables infrastructure with the private sector communities and local authorities and could the Scottish Government actually help us make that happen?

So we support very much the work done today and the agreement from the Scottish Government to provide guidance to support local authority and the local authority position. So thanks for the opportunity to contribute to this paper today and that Deputy First Minister thanks very much.

Shona Robison:

Thanks Raymond, there’s a lot in there for us to follow up on.  I'm going to bring in Vicki and then I'll get James.

Vicki Nairn:

Thank you DFM.

I think from an education perspective, what we're really keen to do is to actually to link in to that picture that Raymond just outlined and understand how we can then also link that to the skills agenda as well.

So I just wanted to share an example with you. So, we've been working with the ScotWind Partners and established memorandums of understanding with the leading consortia.

To date, we've secured 1.2 million of gift agreements, and there's also a pipeline in place and what that's enabled us to do is, uh, link to all of our academic partnerships right across our region. We've managed to put STEM coordinators into each of those partners, so very much based on our Community campuses. Some of them are .5 FTE, but some of them are full time and they work across the region.

They work with schools to actually develop a 3 year STEM program and that's really getting young people, and especially young females, interested in that STEM agenda, which in turn then starts to open up some of the skills pipeline.

But I think what we're really keen to do, especially in further education and dedicated apprenticeships and skills training, is understand how we can link all of this together into more of a holistic life cycle. So that actually as we've got young people coming through schools, they're choosing skills and they're choosing appropriate courses and programs that actually allows them to then link into that bigger economic development agenda and linked to actually some of the community benefits that that Raymond was just talking about as well and of course we we work with our partners as well in terms of that.

But I think the feedback that we're getting is that there could be a great opportunity there to join all of that up. So that, actually you have a really powerful thing where you link up education, the local authority provision and economic development and actually you look at it is as a total ecosystem, so that we're not all doing our own thing for very good reasons and we actually target it.

So just a little bit of info from me, thank you.

Shona Robison:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, Vicki and I like the concept of the total ecosystem. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier on, bringing everyone out of silos, into looking at how working together is sort of greater than the sum of the parts because of what it can then deliver.

James and then Stuart.

James Stockan:

Yes, thank you, Deputy First minister.

I'm interested to go a little bit beyond this, if we could And you spoke about working together, which is exactly where we need to be. But with some of the new Ofgem positions on this, particularly on use of the system, the TNUoS charges, we may not see development if we don't collectively do something.

And this is difficult with energy being reserved and the economy being devolved, we need to work together to absolutely lobby as the whole of this region to make sure we have some activity happening. Because we could end up that the offshore opportunity becomes more marginal, which means there will be less in it for our communities and onshore again will be so pegged back that there will be no benefits coming into our community.

So I think it's absolutely essential we work together now to lobby into the government and I know that Ofgem is supposed to be independent. But I believe that for Scotland's benefit we really need to take this, grasp this nettle now and do something.

And when it comes to, you know, we won't be looking at any other rolling out of benefit if our communities are not benefited. We did write together collectively on the cost of servicing our communities with electricity and got nowhere. But it's time that we, you know, raised our voice and spoke quite clearly that we're not going to just be used by the rest of the country to service their energy requirement without putting some benefit back to the places. Thanks.

Shona Robison:

Right, James, and you know, be assured, we regularly raise these issues with the UK Government but you make some salient points.

I've got Stuart and then Frank, I think, Yep.

Stuart Black:

Yes, thanks DFM I was just going to build on the point that James made.

At Highlands and Islands Enterprise we’re doing some work on the potential benefits from offshore renewables. Because I think the onshore infrastructure is important, but really the huge prize is what's happening in the in the North Sea and around our coast on the West Coast as well of course.

We are doing work at the moment, which we intend to take forward through the Regional Economic Partnership, I think a lot of our discussions today are work that we're doing through the REP and really the price there is significant.

Vicki's mentioned a relatively small sum in the scheme of things, a big sum for UHI, but really a very small sum and there have been missed opportunities in the past.

Beatrice wind farm, for example, the total community benefit from that was £6 million, split £4 million to Highland and £2 million to Murray. Now that wind farm, if it was paying the same as onshore, would be paying £3 million per annum. So you can see how small it was in relation to what was achievable. So I think a co-ordinated approach here is needed and I think government also has to back us.

There are huge developments happening around our coast and they really have to leave a lasting legacy in the region. I think the companies, most of them, actually see that they need to have successful communities to be based in. They want to have communities with good assets, with good housing, with good quality services.

So I think there's actually a win-win for everyone in this, but it is something we plan to take forward through the REP thanks.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Stuart And that makes a lot of sense in terms of it going through the REP. I've got Frank, and then I think James again, and then Paul.

Frank Mitchell:

Thanks DFM, I was probably going to build upon what Stuart said there.

I think, I'm worried as an impression that organizations, and I’m the Chair of SDS, aren’t working together.

There’s a lot of cooperation going across agencies to bring together the holistic picture of all the activity that's going on and what we can be firm about, and still what’s out there in the ether to try and look at the skills landscape and what's needed.

So there is a lot of work going on, particularly under the REP, that Stuart mentioned already, with the cooperation across all the agencies and working with the Councils, including also the University and the colleges in the area to try and bring this picture together.

So there's activity o going just now, just to make sure you're aware of that and the active partnership that's going on just now to make sure we can realise those opportunities for the skills.

Shona Robison:

Thanks, Frank. That really helpful and I think James was a legacy hand. So I've now got Paul.

Paul Steele:

Thanks, Deputy First Minister.

I mean, I totally agree with what James and Stuart were saying there and also with Raymond’s previous point about the need for money for the capital infrastructure.

I'm going to go slightly off topic I think, but we're talking about transformational socio-economic impact. So as a local authority we're struggling to have the capacity to do to that, due to the cuts over the years, and it doesn't look like that situation is going to change anytime soon.

There is a lot of good partnership working happening, but in order for us to be able to maximize this situation, I think the community benefit isn't just necessarily for community groups and trusts. I think, you know, for community wealth building to happen, I think there should be some element of maybe revenue funding for local authorities to help us transform the socio-economics of our islands.

You know, planning for example, roads, social care, education, housing. You know, they all benefit our communities and we're struggling to fund that at the moment.

So I just think there's maybe something about what does community benefit mean?, and taking local authorities feed into that.

Shona Robison:

Ok, thanks Paul for that challenge.

And I'm not seeing anyone else with their hands up. So I was making copious amounts of notes. So I'm hoping and I know I'm assured, I know they will be that the officers will be also noting all of the matters to be taken forward and outcomes of that discussion.

I think overall, you know, it can be summed up about how to make community benefit more impactful, there’s a lot that flows from that about what are the levers required and to make that happen? There have been some suggestions around the infrastructure fund, there's issues about powers, and basically some issues for the UK Government to resolve, some issues for the Scottish Government to take forward.

I think anything that is for the UK Government, we could quite helpfully brigade into a set of issues to then put to them as a collective. I think that would be helpful rather than going on separate matters if that's if that makes sense.

And the issue of lasting legacy I think for me is absolutely key. There is a huge opportunity. So much happening in the renewable energy sector, but we've talked today extensively about some of the challenges around transport, around housing, around wider public services, around digital and the opportunity for potential resources from the community benefit.

I think bringing those together makes a lot of sense to me, so that lasting legacy is key and the need for us to take a coordinated approach to maximize the chances of that happening to its fullest potential.

So, hopefully that will. We’ll make sure that's all captured in terms of the actions that we need to take forward from that discussion.

I want to just bring us on to the Forward Look while we've got a couple of minutes left. So basically, as I said, draft outcomes from today's meeting will be shared with Members for consideration shortly after today's meeting.

I need you to note that the spring 2024 Convention will be hosted by Moray Council in Elgin and that is going to be on Monday the 18th of March. So put that in your Diaries.

The agenda so far will include a discussion on delivering social care services in remote rural and island areas, and we touched on that a couple of times during the course of today and a refreshed paper will be shared nearer the time.

Other topics potentially to be included and are green freeports, the National Islands Plan and housing. Although we touched on housing, I think we could usefully build on the discussion today, given it's such an important focus, so there is a potential agenda item.

It'll be taken forward by the Senior Officers Group as normal, and I would encourage Members to contact officials if there are any suggested improvements in terms of the format of the meetings. But also in terms of the agenda for the next meeting if there are things you definitely want, either out of the list that I've given you, or things that are not on the list. Please contact Officers to put forward agenda proposals and just what you think in terms of the ones I did mention are the key priorities for us to come to, at that March meeting.

So if that sounds ok, I'll just give a second to see if there's anybody who wants to come in and or if you're content to proceed on that basis. I'm not seeing any.

That just leaves me to say a big thank you for your participation today. It's been really good. A lot of interconnecting issues and it's been a good input and challenge and reflection.

So thanks for all of that and I'll close the Convention and I'll see you all again in March in person. Ok, thanks very much. Bye.

Meeting Closed

Papers can be made available on request from the CoHI Secretariat mailbox.


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