Islands Strategic Group minutes: December 2021

Minutes from the meeting of the group on 15 December 2021.

Attendees and apologies


  • Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands
  • Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government 
  • Cllr Robin Currie, Council Leader, Policy Lead for Economy and Rural Growth, Argyll and Bute Council
  • Pippa Milne, Chief Executive, Argyll & Bute Council 
  • Cllr Roddie MacKay, Council Leader, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • Calum MacIver, Director for Communities, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • Cllr Margaret Davidson, Council Leader, Highland Council
  • Cllr Alex Gallagher, Council's cabinet member for Economy/Cabinet member for Post-Covid Renewal, North Ayrshire Council
  • Catriona Mcauley, Head of Economic Growth, North Ayrshire Council
  • John Mundell, Interim Chief Executive, Orkney Islands Council
  • Cllr James Stockan, Council Leader, Orkney Islands Council
  • Cllr Steven Coutts, Council Leader, Shetland Islands Council
  • Maggie Sandison, Chief Executive, Shetland Islands Council
  • Hilary Stubbs, Mobility Access Committee Scotland, National Islands Plan Delivery Group member

Scottish Government

  • Philip Raines, Interim Deputy Director, Rural Economy and Communities (REC)
  • Erica Clarkson, Head of Islands Policy and Communities, REC
  • Nicola Crook, National Islands Plan Delivery Lead, REC
  • Cameron Anson, Repopulation and Islands Communities Policy Manager, REC
  • Francesco Sindico, Carbon Neutral Islands Lead, REC
  • Lorraine Lowrie, Senior Island Communities Policy Lead, REC
  • Lewis Macaskill, Senior Island Communities Policy Lead, REC
  • Alanis MacArthur, Islands Policy Officer, REC
  • Kate Higgins, Special Advisor to the First Minister
  • Mr John Harden, Deputy National Clinical Director
  • Ingrid Roberts, Head of National Care Service Policy and Legislation Unit
  • Lisa Bullen, planning team leader
  • Joanna Bowman, people and information manager
  • Rachel Palmer, Deputy Private Secretary

Items and actions


The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Ms Gougeon welcomed everyone to the meeting and was pleased to have Ms Robison, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government joining to discuss housing issues.

The minutes from the previous meeting were approved.

National Islands Plan Delivery Group update

Hilary Stubbs gave an update on the third National Islands Plan Delivery Group meeting which took place on 24 November 2021. The update focused on key projects such as Carbon Neutral Islands, the National Islands Plan, Implementation Route Map and proposals for an island research working group.

Islands housing

Ms Robison was delighted to be present. She provided an overview on housing, emphasising the importance of good quality affordable homes to help population retention.

Ms Gougeon welcomed questions for Ms Robison.

Cllr Gallagher agreed with Ms Robison that housing is a big issue, not just the lack of housing but houses that are empty. A survey in Cumbrae showed 46% of houses are not occupied most of the time. The council recently built 34 houses in Brodick, by getting local allocations policy, the houses will be for primary residents, or someone moving to the island for an occupation.

Ms Robison commented on the model described by Cllr Gallagher which appears similar to a key worker housing approach. Previously not mentioned was the opportunities for off-site construction to get economies or scale and reduce costs. Highland Council were considering a model which was to establish pre-agreed/pre-approved house designs to help reduce the time of securing planning permission.

Cllr Davidson agreed with previous points on shortening the planning process and the importance of learning from others stating that it is vital to link work on housing with the various and current repopulation strategies.

Ms Robison thanked Cllr Davidson for the good examples, and agreed that partnership working is required to help communities shape the needs of their local areas.

Cllr Coutts commented on the cost of building a house in Shetland, for example a householder taking advantage of offsite construction with the house costing £350,000 to build, but the valuation when going to the bank to borrow is £160,000. This highlights the scale of the challenge alongside other issues such as digital and transport connectivity. This has an effect on attracting young people to island communities who rely on borrowing and don’t have access to capital for building or buying. It was agreed that it is important to work together on these issues and take a holistic view.

Cllr Currie noted the local authority are happy with the allocation they have over the next few years to develop houses in Argyll and Bute. Houses are being bought by those retired or semi-retired, with a lack of working population being able to afford to buy. Restrictions on who can buy houses could be considered to assist with this issue.

Ms Robison commented that there are more mechanisms being introduced to retain housing in local communities. If looking at affordable low cost ownership, it is important to keep them local of they will be lost to the market.

Hillary Stubbs stressed approximately 10% of the population have a disability and all housing developments should include accessible houses.

Ms Robison stated the importance of building standards and new stock ticking all of these boxes, but the problem is retro-fitting accessibility and net zero. These issues will need to be worked through to ensure people can live in their own homes for as long as possible.

Cllr Davidson highlighted the importance of community confidence and people needing assurances that the housing being built will be available to them.

Ms Gougeon thanked Ms Robison for attending the meeting today and for discussing an item which is integral to the islands.

Carbon neutral islands

Francesco Sindico provided an update on the Scottish Government’s Carbon Neutral Islands project. The Islands Team are currently in the process of selecting the 6 islands which will be part of the project. Each local authority has appointed a member who sits on the External Technical Working Group which is co-producing the criteria that will inform the selection of the islands. Once these 6 islands are selected there will be in-depth consultation with communities.

Cllr Stockan questioned if the range of island will be different to cover as wide an area as possible.

Francesco Sindico explained the idea is to choose 6 islands with different stories. The External Working Group came up with an initial 58 criteria, work is ongoing to narrow these down to a manageable selection.

Cllr Davidson emphasised the need for an action plan and milestones. With the current climate crisis, it is important to be focused on how much carbon we are waving and how the process is reported back to us.

Francesco Sindico commented on the need for focusing on environment and the people too.

Cllr Coutts suggested community engagement, as all islands will be at different stages. Shetland, for example has developed net zero route maps.

Francesco Sindico agreed it needs to be a clear message.

Cllr Currie commented on the importance of not choosing islands that are easy winners.

Cllr Gallagher agreed with Cllr Currie’s point on the need for a reasonable mix of choice in islands. For example, Arran and Cumbrae are very different and that should be taken into consideration. There is a need to look at every issue such as population, the housing economy and link these all together.

Francesco Sindico explained he will be engaging with policy colleagues to map out all existing climate related funding to ensure new funds or projects are not created for the sake of it. It is important to achieve a cost benefit solution where possible and private funding will also be needed.

Cllr Stockan stressed the importance of avoiding duplication and suggested the project ties in with the Islands Deal.

Ms Gougeon thanked everyone for their helpful comments and committed to continue to engage on this matter.

Islands bond

Cameron Anson thanked the members for their engagement on the Bond work so far.

Cllr Coutts stressed the need for the investment to benefit the wider community and expressed concern that the money provided may not be enough.

Cameron Anson commented that this issue has been raised before. The Islands Team are working hard to understand what the Bond can assist with and which areas that can be picked up with other policy colleagues. Cameron appreciated that the Bond will not resolve all the challenges communities face.

Cllr Gallagher suggested that Local Authorities should be involved in the planning of the virtual workshops as mentioned in the meeting papers.

Lorraine Lowrie agreed this would be a great idea which will be taken forward.

Action point: Local authorities to be involved in virtual workshop planning for the Bond.

Cllr Davidson commented on the need for some imaginative finance work around housing, such as bringing in private sector money and developers. He felt it was important that Local Authorities continue to talk to the Scottish Government about how to retain wealth in the Highlands and Islands.

Cllr Currie asked if the Bond would be a grant or a loan and highlighted that £5 million divided by 90 or so inhabited islands leaves £50,000 per island.

Lorraine Lowrie confirmed the policy is still in the development stages, and the Islands Team will explore how applications will work. The Programme for Government commitment states that each Bond will be up to £50,000.

Cllr Gallagher suggested that the £50,000 be tied into community wealth building for any big developments - such as energy.

Cameron Anson stressed the need for more sustainable economies.

Ms Gougeon gave her apologies for having to leave the meeting early due to another commitment and passed the Chair to Phil Raines.

Progress on the National Islands Plan

Nicola Crook welcomed any questions on the Islands Infrastructure Fund paper which was sent out to the group. She had expected to have the grant offer letters out sooner, but due to a delay in receiving some data from local authorities, these will now be sent out in the next couple of days. It has been proposed that the Island Strategic Group act as the Programme Board for the Islands Programme going forward, and an overview paper will be issued in due course.

Action point: Programme board overview paper to be issued.

Cllr Currie questioned what the criteria is for spend and if the same amount of money being allocated this year will be repeated in future.

Nicola Crook confirmed the criteria will be included in the grant offer. Funding needs to link directly to the Islands Programme and the National Islands Plan strategic objectives - and to align with infrastructure plans locally. What happens this year is not confirmed for future years due to a profiling change in budgets, but the possibility of a competitive bid process is being considered.

Phil Raines stated that the next Island Strategic Group meeting will look at future priorities for Islands Programme funding.

Cllr Gallagher stated his disappointment that the population and road length allocation was used as the other criteria (population alone) would’ve given North Ayrshire Council more money. He also asked if funding could run over several years to allow long term projects to be factored in.

Phil Raines confirmed that the decision was bound by wider political framework which was agreed through the COSLA Settlement Distribution Group.

Nicola Crook noted that North Ayrshire do not have a representative on the COSLA Settlement Distribution Group, which might be something to look into, but that they do have representatives on the COSLA Leaders group who cleared the allocation and did not raise any issues.

National care service

Ingrid Roberts gave an overview on the consultation which closed 2 November 2021 with over 1,300 responses and 100 engagement sessions. The next steps are an independent analysis of the consultation responses and hopefully to publish the report by end of January 2022. Over the next 18 months there will be ongoing engagement sessions with relevant stakeholders.

Cllr Gallagher explained the proposals will not be of any benefit to islands and stated that it appears that Ministers have already made their minds up regarding the future of the NCS.

Phil Raines commented that the consultation shows Ministers have not made their mind up and reassured the group that engagement was ongoing to ensure that all views were fully considered.

Cllr Davidson stated there is a care crisis across the country and the most important thing is to get money out to people so that services can be delivered.

Phil Raines suggested that the next meeting focuses closely on National Case Service discussion and issues such as workforce and recruitment.

Action point: next meeting to include NCS issues.

Cllr Stockan suggested that past experiences are looked at closely by officials and that a more co-ordinated approach could be taken with a different approach for islands. He stressed that it was important to ensure value for money for public spend on islands.

Ingrid Roberts thanked ISG members for their helpful comments which will be fed back to appropriate colleagues. Ingrid confirmed that she would be happy to arrange for someone to discuss workforce and recruitment at the next meeting.

Covid update

Dr Harden gave an update on the Covid Omicron variant. He stated that health colleagues are now dealing with a variant that is much more infectious and that officials are trying to establish how transmissible it is, but he believes it to be twice - or maybe more - as infectious than Delta. There is further guidance coming in the next few days for all areas affected. The retail and restaurant setting guidance was due to be published on the day of the ISG meeting.

Cllr Stockan expressed his concerns regarding isolation rules and the impact this has on vital services, questioning how local authorities can ensure that vital services continue to be delivered in their communities.

Dr Harden explained that it is difficult to map it out at the moment until we know the severity - which officials will continue to asses.

Cllr Stockan noted there should be a clear line on local discretion so the national message is not broken. The local Directors of Public Health across the islands understand the local context.

Dr Harden confirmed that he will flag this to the Chief Medical Officer who regularly meets with senior Public Health colleagues.

Cllr Davidson highlighted the importance of keeping critical services open, especially schools.

Dr Harden stated how the policy impacts across different parts of the country is being considered. It is currently early days, and Scottish Government is updating the guidance as much as possible.

Phil Raines asked when there might be a better understanding of the impacts of Omicron.

Dr Harden explained as more cases arrived, there will be more people in hospital, which in turn provide an indication of how badly effected people are. Dr Harden was at this time unable to make direction comparisons with other variations of COVID-19.

Phil Raines thanked Dr Harden for coming along to provide an update.

Any other business

Phil Raines proposed that the meeting be brought to a close and confirmed that the next meeting will take place in March.

Action point: next meeting date to be confirmed by the Islands Team.

Cllr Davidson requested the next meeting includes discussion around community wealth building on our islands and this is something that requires urgent attention.

Erica Clarkson thanked Margaret for raising the point and will have this included in next meeting’s agenda.

Action point: next meeting to include community wealth building.

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