Islands Strategic Group minutes: March 2021

Minutes from the group's meeting on 24 March 2021.

Attendees and apologies

  • Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands
  • Pippa Milne, Chief Executive, Argyll & Bute Council
  • Cllr Robin Currie, Council Leader, Policy Lead for Economy and Rural Growth, Argyll & Bute Council
  • Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • Cllr Roddie MacKay, Council Leader, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
  • Donna Mason, Chief Executive, Highland Council
  • Cllr Margaret Davidson, Council Leader, Highland Council
  • Caitriona McAuley, Head of Service/ Economic Development & Regeneration, North Ayrshire Council
  • Cllr Alex Gallagher, Council's cabinet member for Economy/Cabinet member for Post-Covid Renewal, North Ayrshire Council
  • John Mundell, Interim Chief Executive, Orkney Islands Council
  • Cllr James Stockan, Council Leader, Orkney Islands Council
  • Maggie Sandison, Chief Executive, Shetland Islands Council
  • Cllr Steven Coutts, Council Leader, Shetland Islands Council

Scottish Government

  • Philip Raines, Interim Deputy Director, Rural Economy & Communities
  • Erica Clarkson, Head of Islands Policy and Communities, REC
  • Nicola Crook, National Islands Plan Delivery Lead, REC
  • Desmond Tinney, Team Leader Island Communities, REC
  • Cameron Anson, Repopulation and Island Communities Policy Manager, REC
  • Lorraine Lowrie, Senior Island Communities Policy Lead, REC
  • Lewis MacAskill, Senior Island Communities Policy Lead, REC
  • Coinneach Morrison, Islands Recovery and Policy Manager, REC
  • Magdalena Szymborska-Bishop, Islands Policy Officer, REC
  • Gillian Barclay, Deputy Director, General Health & Social Care
  • Stuart Johnston, Senior Policy Relationship Manager, General Communities
  • Ben Jones, Deputy Population Programme Manager, General Constitution & External Affairs
  • Laurence Kenney, Head of Ferries Policy, Transport Scotland
  • Professor Jason Leitch, Clinical Director
  • Murdoch Macleod, Deputy Director, Financial Services Division
  • Chris Wilcock, Head of Ferries Unit, Transport Scotland
  • Debbie Wilson, Senior Policy Officer, Digital Connectivity

Items and actions

Apologies were received from Craig Hatton, Chief Executive, North Ayrshire Council.


The Minister welcomed everyone to the eleventh meeting of the Islands Strategic Group (ISG), expressing his hope that the Teams platform works well, but if there are any technical issues they can be looked at in the next parliamentary session.

Minutes of the ISG meeting of 9 December 2020

The minutes of the last meeting were approved.

National islands plan delivery framework

Philip Raines presented new Terms of Reference for the Group and outlined the creation of two new governance groups: The National Islands Plan Delivery Group and Thematic Working Groups.

Pippa Milne asked for some clarity around community representation on the Delivery Group highlighting the diversity of the islands.

Cllr MacKay stated that the ISG is a partnership between the local government and the Scottish Government and that in his view, some of the aspects of the partnership had been lost, it is a very good time for a reset.

Cllr Coutts echoed Cllr MacKay’s points about the reset of the ISG and about information sharing between the ISG members. He expressed concern about the COVID-19 restrictions work being carried out within the community without Local Authorities being informed in advance.

Mr Wheelhouse appreciated points made by both Cllr MacKay and Cllr Coutts and suggested the election period could be used to reflect on issues to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Philip Raines stressed the importance of the ISG role as being fundamental to relationships between islands authorities and the Scottish Government in policy making. He expressed his hope that via revised Terms of Reference, the group will be able to revitalise that relationship going forward.

Philip Raines stressed that the role of officials (on behalf of the Scottish Government) is not to develop exclusive relationships, but to be open to all ways in which problems can be solved - including engagement with all island stakeholders.

Cllr Stockan expressed the view that, devolved administrations do not appreciate being bypassed by UK Government on key issues. Therefore, the same respect should remain from Scottish Government to local authorities. He stressed that the best way to reach the views of communities is through the local authorities who are in regular dialogue with the areas they represent. Cllr Stockan supported, the idea of a reset of the ISG.

Malcolm Burr emphasised that the working relationship between the ISG and the SG has to be a genuine collaboration and the local authorities have to be involved in all aspects including, the workshops for the National Islands Plan Implementation Route Map. The reset of the ISG and futher discussion of how to collaborate in the future was welcomed.

Ferries update

Chris Wilcock provided the ISG with an update on the work of Transport Scotland which included:

  • the £580 million Infrastructure Investment Plan which will support a wide range of projects including vessels procurement and replacement

  • improving resilience, particularly in relation to disruptions during winter and dry docking periods
  • new ways of working with local authorities, particularly in relation to strategic decision making

Pippa Milne discussed the benefits of having a long-term strategy for the interrelationship between the vessel procurement choices and the piers and harbours. Concerns had raised by communities about the choice of vessel and the overall approach. The Minister commented that the strategic vision is extremely important, as is the vessel procurement and harbour facilities. These remain key issues that SG is looking at in the context of Islands Connectivity Plan.

Cllr Stockan asked about the one meter COVID-19 social distancing exemption on internal ferries, and whether restricting capacity was still needed when there have been virtually no COVID-19 cases in Orkney.

Chris Wilcock confirmed that such exemptions can be in place, but that the decision should be made by individual operators following appropriate risk assessment.

Action point: to find out whether Orkney Ferries operate under this exemption (Transport Scotland confirmed on 25/03/2021 that Orkney Ferries already operate under 1 meter exemption).

Chris Wilcock confirmed that there is a more positive landscape for capacity issues than the previous year due to staffing issues and lack of clarity around when restrictions were going to be lifted. He confirmed that work is continuing to find the best option for the Campbeltown service and its impact on Arran.

Cllr Gallagher raised his concern around a lack of holistic strategic vision for the STPR2. Mr Wheelhouse confirmed that STPR2 is split into two phases - where phase one focuses on post COVID-19 sustainable travel whilst phase two will focus on the strategic projects that will require major capital investments with various local studies feeding into that knowledge. Chris Wilcock accepted the points about having a clearer strategy around ports and vessels and confirmed that work on that is underway.

Laurence Kenney confirmed that the summer timetable for CalMac services would begin on the 26 of April 2021. He also invited members again to engage with the STPR2 consultation that was being carried out until the end of March.

COVID-19 restrictions

Professor Leitch gave an update on the current COVID-19 situation discussing current infection rates, modelling, vaccination and travel. Cllr Stockan stated that messages coming from SG are not easy to communicate to the community - particularly during recent weeks as there was a degree of scepticism around data. Referring to the recent COVID-19 restrictions community engagement exercise, he further stated that the binary choice presented had left him in a difficult position. Cllr Stockan also stressed that outbreaks had been dealt with well by islands in comparison to the mainland.

Cllr MacKay echoed Cllr Stockan’s comments about the possibility of island communities being disadvantaged by the current proposed options.

Cllr Currie referred to businesses from his local authority area who were suffering as holidaymakers who were unsure about visiting the islands were choosing to book trips across the mainland.

Cllr Gallagher noted that North Ayrshire has islands that are part of the mainland local authority and so should not be in different tiers as people had to be able to travel for various reasons. The situation would also pose questions for ferries and any financial help for businesses which might be available.

Professor Leitch thanked all for making their points and agreed that island communities have done an excellent job in supressing the virus in their local areas, this being a testament to health services, local authorities, public health leaders. However, it was emphasised that people can still become very sick with the new variant which appears to spread more easily.

Cllr Stockan made the point that travel restrictions had been lifted last summer and thousands of tourists were able to visit as well as hundreds of workers travelling each week during the pandemic – all without a major outbreak.

Prof Leitch asked Cllr James Stockan for clarification, asking whether his preference would be to have more freedoms with no travel restrictions in essence moving to Level 0 and allowing a full-flow of travel to and from the islands

Cllr Stockan confirmed that this was his preference and suggested that Orkney would be able to respond quickly to any potential breakout of the virus and that testing would help with this. Prof Leitch explained that tests do not find the incubating virus (7 to 10 days from the infection), and therefore the public health advice doesn’t agree with Cllr Stockan’s position.

Mr Wheelhouse noted that constituents had been in contacts with their MSPs and MPs directly with many expressing concern about visitors importing the virus to vulnerable communities. Therefore it is difficult, from the government point of view, to reconcile these decisions.

Malcolm Burr stated that it was difficult to explain the current situation, in the context of summer 2020, when high number of tourists visited from high prevalence areas. Furthermore, it seemed that the people from higher prevalence areas were able to manage themselves and seemed to be managed within the local setting they visited. The difficulty was added by the fact that, in the same context, now there is a vaccine in place for protection as well as observing the rules.

Prof Leitch explained that in the summer of 2020 when restrictions were removed, the whole country had very low prevalence of the virus. However, this is no longer the position. If hospitality opens up it increases the likelihood of transmission, which poses the question whether this could be managed locally. Prof Leitch agreed that the vaccine will help to prevent serious disease in a high proportion of people. He expressed his hope that between now and the summer the science proves this for certain and therefore the advice could be changed.

John Mundell asked, in the context of Orkney, if there was a place for testing at ports and airports of departure prior to people coming into the island to help remove some of the travel restrictions. He also noted that discussions had been held with commercial operators who are keen for this to happen. Prof Leitch reiterated that testing is insufficient as it does not find the incubating virus. He explained that shedding virus can be found in pre-symptomatic or symptomatic individuals, therefore potentially infected people can still go through such testing without the virus being found. Although testing is one of the multiple layers of protection, a test to release approach could be considered scientifically illiterate.

Mr Wheelhouse thanked Prof Leitch for providing this clarity to the ISG.

Review of adult social care

Gillian Barclay gave an update on review of Adult Social Care that had been carried out by an independent reviewer appointed at the end of September 2020 and advised that the findings are now being analysed of how to make the recommended improvements. Malcolm Burr thanked Gillian and stressed that the position of everyone involved is to see an improvement in the provision of social care. He expressed the hope that island communities and health boards could be taken into consideration.

Maggie Sandison raised the point that this review brings a serious change in service and enquired as to why an ICIA had not been mentioned in the review. She followed this up by highlighting the quality of services that Shetland Islands Council provides locally and pointed out that they funded provision of social care at a level that SG have not provided.

Cllr Davidson agreed with Malcolm Burr’s points. She stated that the way the National Health Service is run is not always beneficial for rural and island communities. The welfare of vulnerable people is at the heart of what her council is trying to provide and as such, from her perspective, accountability and governance should stay local.

Cllr Stockan supported Malcolm Burr’s point that bureaucracy should be at the right level for small populations.

Pippa Milne raised the point that there should be a recognition of what local authorities are trying to achieve their communities and to find the quickest way of delivering that through existing mechanisms.

Gillian Barclay thanked the ISG for their contributions. She reiterated that the review has been independent and there are no plans yet to bring any structural changes. If that was to be the case, all the regulatory impact assessments would be carried out.

R100 update

Debbie Wilson gave an update on R100 Programme:

  • work continues with BT to finalise planned build, taking into account the latest information on commercial coverage
  • this includes looking at opportunities for early survey work ahead of deployment
  • work to lay new subsea cables to supply superfast broadband to 15 of Scotland’s most remote communities is due to start Spring 2021. Timescales cannot yet be confirmed, but premises are eligible for the Interim Voucher Scheme in anticipation of that build. The full contractual coverage will be confirmed over the Summer

Cllr Davidson thanked Mr Wheelhouse and Debbie Wilson for the update and the reassurance that the programme progresses, stating that the pandemic has highlighted connectivity inequalities on a huge scale. Mr Wheelhouse confirmed that SG is working constantly to maximise the value of the contract and any new money that can be secured from the UK government would be very welcomed.

Debbie Wilson explained that a local authority data portal was created for local authorities to see up to date data on which premises are in scope of the build plans.

7.4 Cllr Stockan asked if there were figures showing coverage on islands. The Minister stated that these figures would not be available until the remodelling exercise is completed.

Action point: to provide those figures when available. Mr Wheelhouse also highlighted that most of the 16 subsea cables are going to Orkney, Shetland and Argyll and Bute.

Island communities impact assessments

Erica Clarkson gave an update on Island Communities Impact Assessments (ICIAs), welcoming comments on areas that ISG members felt might benefit from retrospective assessments.

Action point: Malcolm Burr stated that given the time available, local authorities should discuss it amongst themselves prior to engaging with officials. Mr Wheelhouse noted that he was aware of certain issues such as the centralisation of traffic management at airports.

Cllr Alex Gallagher suggested the transport strategy and STPR2 would benefit from having ICIAs. Mr Wheelhouse stated that he believes that and ICIA is being done on the Strategic Transport Project Reviews and this will be reflected in the final document. Laurence Kenney confirmed this and told the ISG that an ICIA on the National Transport Strategy was performed in the spirit of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 before the 2020 regulations were enacted.

The islands programme - funding

Nicola Crook gave an overview of the £30 million Islands Programme (IP).

Cllr Gallagher questioned how the funds will be distributed, hoping they would not be competitive and that match funding would be allowed.

Cllr Davidson asked if Skye will be included in the IP and indicated that match funding would be welcomed. Nicola Crook confirmed that Skye is included in this funding stream, that mechanisms are being developed and there is a will to work with others to ensure the Strategic Objectives within the National Islands Plan are delivered. Efforts will be made to connect with relevant local authority officers after the election period. Mr Wheelhouse advised that the IP will plug the gaps in the National Islands Plan that may not otherwise receive dedicated funding and that there are other sources of money to address issues on a larger scale.

Pippa Milne stated that STPR2 is a real “hot topic” as transport infrastructure and roads have been excluded from STPR2 and that puts significant pressure on local authorities. Mr Wheelhouse stated that any feedback will be taken into consideration in the second phase.

Population work update

Cameron Anson gave an overview on population issues.

Cllr Currie asked for an update on the “Smart Clachan” Repopulation pilot. Cameron Anson confirmed that one of the projects is being delivered in Argyll and Bute with the potential for redevelopment of the Hynish Centre in Tiree, working with the Hebridean Trust and the Local Development Trust. Scope exists for redevelopment of buildings into housing and business units to support other local services. Further projects in other areas are being considered and Mr Wheelhouse commented that there is strong support for this work amongst his colleagues.

Any other business

Erica Clarkson welcomed feedback on the recent publication of the National Islands Plan Annual Plan and the National Islands Plan Implementation Route Map

Cllr Gallagher raised the matter of freight price rises, stating commercial freight is not covered by the RET. The Minister stated that SG is considering reviews of the freight fares policy to ensure a balance is achieved. Cllr Gallagher stated that local authorities would be contacting the Minister again, as the fares rises were implemented before normal services resumed.

Cllr Stockan mentioned that there is work to be done around the review to produce an equal system, as freight prices affect every islander, every day - unlike those who might be travelling for pleasure. The Minister noted Cllr Stockan’s comments and added that an evaluation of the RET system shows that in most parts, communities benefit.

Mr Wheelhouse closed the meeting by thanking members for their positive input and willingness to work collaboratively going forward.

Date of the next meeting

Officials will liaise with Private Office following the election period and email options to the ISG.

Islands Strategic Group - March 2021

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