Islands Strategic Group minutes: May 2020

Minutes from the meeting of the Islands Strategic Group, held on 26 May 2020.

Attendees and apologies


  • Mr Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands


  • Cllr Roddie Mackay (Leader Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) 
  • Malcolm Burr (Chief Executive, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar)
  • Cllr James Stockan (Leader, Orkney Islands Council)
  • John Mundell (Chief Executive, Orkney Islands Council)
  • Craig Hatton (North Ayrshire Council, Chief Executive)
  • Pippa Milne (Argyll and Bute Council)
  • Cllr Steven Coutts, (Leader Shetland Islands Council)
  • Peter Peterson (Shetland Council)
  • Cllr Allan Henderson (Vice-Convener, Highland Council)
  • Cllr Margaret Davidson (Highland)
  • Maggie Sandison (Chief Executive, Shetland Islands Council)
  • Michael Scott (Orkney Islands Council)
  • Jayne Venables (Orkney Islands Council)
  • Cllr Robin Currie (Policy Lead Councillor, Argyll and Bute Council)


  • Donna Manson (Highland Council, Chief Executive)
  • Kate Lackie, (Highland Council)
  • Anna Whelan (Orkney Islands Council)

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions

Mr Wheelhouse welcomed everyone to the seventh meeting of the Islands Strategic Group (ISG) and outlined the agenda items.   

Minutes of the previous meeting and matters arising

Cllr. Stockan raised the issues of Additional Powers stating that he wishes it to be recorded that he is disappointed that the Minister will be the final arbiter. 

Malcolm Burr sought some clarification on the progress of the new Islands Officials Partnership Group and also the detailed and measureable actions for the group. 

Lockdown measures: planning for islands

Professor Jason Leitch invited further contact from members of the ISG going forward – as and when required. He provided the latest health statistics and confirmed that there are some ‘green shoots of hope’ in the Health Service elements. Professor Leitch also confirmed that he is mindful of island communities, their unique contexts and their public health requirements. He has been in touch with island health partners, including the Care Home sector and with Health Care and Public Health colleagues.  

Michael Kellet confirmed that rather moving through the phases in symmetrical three week steps, SG will be directed by the available data and advice.

Chris Wilcock (Head of Ferries Unit) drew the group’s attention to the launch of the Transport Transition Plan and acknowledged that ferries are clearly of great interest to islands. He thanked the operators and Local Authorities for maintaining lifeline services during this challenging time, and flagged that moving forward, practical limitations around physical distancing will continue to feature on vessels. Reduced capacity will also need to be considered so colleagues are currently modelling available capacity against last year’s demand figures. There may also be challenges unique to individual islands and Ministers and Local Authorities are engaged in development work to help mitigate this as far as possible. This has included agreements on some ferries for customers to remain in their vehicles. 

Cllr. Coutts highlighted the issue of social distancing in education and health settings. Professor Leitch confirmed that the 2 metre rule must still be followed and clarified that while Health Services never stopped entirely, routine care will be a key part of the easing of lockdown measures. Cllr. Coutts expressed some worries about complacency across communities especially where case numbers are very low or non-existent. Maggie Sandison asked about transport planning and social distancing for passengers and stressed that capacity for freight must also be a priority in order to support economic recovery. 

Craig Hatton also raised the issue of ferry capacity in relation to second home owners wishing to visit the islands. Some island communities are concerned that they will become exposed to the virus. Professor Leitch emphasised that the First Minister wishes to bring families back together first and that a plea will be made for common sense be applied to decisions around travel. 

Cllr. Currie welcomed the comments on education provision and expressed further fears regarding limited capacity for freight. Mr Wheelhouse suggested that this matter be looked at closely by the Islands Transport Forum. Pippa Milne also asked about people who want to travel to second homes and stated that it would be helpful for islanders to be given some priority for travel should capacity be under pressure by non-residents wishing to visit. Chris Wilcock confirmed that officials are closely exploring such challenges with operators.

Tourism update

Iain Morrison (Senior Tourism Policy Officer) provided an update on his work and stressed that Phase Three of the Route Map will be particularly important to the sector. A Response Group chaired by Visit Scotland has been established. Cllr. Stockan stressed that islands are going to have a much greater challenge opening up for tourism and asked if there will there be special financial measures available for businesses impacted by the virus. 

Economic recovery 

Catriona Maclean (Deputy Director - Rural Economy and Communities Division) provided details of the restart and recovery work underway across SG which includes, amongst other things a Rural and Islands Economic Recovery Plan. Additionally, there is a Circular Economy Action Plan and an Advisory Group for Economic Recovery has been established. The Minister referred to ongoing oil and gas sector recovery work and confirmed that he would be happy to discuss this in another meeting with relevant parties.  Cllr. Allan Henderson raised the matter of fragility of IT and digital systems as being a key consideration when planning for economic recovery. The Minister confirmed that work is underway on the prioritisation of digital investment. 

Cllr. Coutts stressed that the National Islands Plan is good and should be reflected on through a COVID lens as we move towards restart and recovery. The Plan does not need to be rewritten, but should be considered again in light of COVID-19. Mr Wheelhouse confirmed that this the Plan would stand and that activity is underway to pick-up implementation and delivery. 

Island Communities Impact Assessments (ICIAs) and the National Islands Plan updates

The Minister acknowledged the efforts of the SG’s Islands Team during the pandemic and the work that they had done to respond to needs of communities. Erica Clarkson confirmed that ICIAs and the National Islands Plan implementation activity had been paused due to engagement with the COVID-19 response but that her team were now beginning to focus again on delivery of their core policy work. 

In terms of ICIA delivery, October is the current target for laying the regulations. The previously drafted National Islands Plan Implementation Route Map is now being re-considered due to our emerging understanding of what the ‘new normal’ will look like. Consequently, it may be helpful to prioritise the delivery of certain aspects of the National Islands Plan, and in particular those areas that will be most helpful to COVID recovery. Going forward, it will be helpful to hear what packages of support will be most helpful, achievable and deliverable.     

The Minister provided reassurances that SG are still working in the spirit of the Islands Act and that work is ongoing on across policy teams to impact assess new policies, strategies and services.  

Islands Deal update 

Louisa Harvey (Regional Economic Development) provided an update and confirmed that both the UK and Scottish Governments remain committed to the Deals. Options to accelerate progress will be considered. No funding announcement for islands has yet been made. Maggie Sandison reflected that the level of engagement with officials has been good. 

Any other business and date of the next meeting

The new Islands Partnership Group meeting date will be confirmed for June and Erica Clarkson suggested another meeting of the Islands Strategic Group before summer recess in order to maintain momentum and offer members a further update on ICIAs and the National Islands Plan. 

The next meeting of the group will be on Tuesday 23 June at 09:30.


Secretariat: Erica Clarkson

Phone: 07585 404264


Islands Strategic Group

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