National Islands Plan through a COVID Lens: survey results

Summary of key findings after the six main local authorities with islands were invited to consider the impact of the (COVID-19) pandemic on the delivery of National Island Plan commitments and how these should be prioritised going forward.

Priority Commitments

In response to question two, which asked respondents to highlight any specific aims that will best support local recovery priorities, a significant number of NIP Commitments were identified by LAs as being pivotal to support local COVID-19 recovery priorities. The Commitments that were highlighted multiple times by different LAs are also consistent with the most important SOs identified in response to question one (Transport/Sustainable Economic Development/Digital Connectivity). The most frequently identified NIP Commitments are noted below and all Commitments that were selected are noted in Annex A:

Highly Important (NIP Commitments highlighted by three or more LAs):

  • Produce a long-term plan and investment programme for new ferries and development at ports to improve resilience, reliability, capacity and reduce emissions to give confidence to island communities on our ongoing commitment. (Transport)
  • Identify key actions to drive inclusive and sustainable economic growth on islands, such as community-run businesses, e-commerce and digitally enabled island-based businesses. (Sustainable Economic Development)
  • Deliver a step change in the quality of digital connectivity across the islands. (Digital Connectivity)

Important (NIP commitments highlighted by two LAs):

  • Develop a new Ferries Plan that will meaningfully contribute to delivering the outcomes of wider Scottish Government strategies as set out in the National Transport Strategy and this National Islands Plan. (Transport)
  • Subject to requirements as set out in the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service and the Northern Isles Ferry Service contracts, we will always strive to improve, where necessary and possible, issues relating to freight and will engage proactively with operators, communities and stakeholders as appropriate. (Transport)
  • Tailor business and community support for island communities to ensure products and services are fit for purpose, accessible and effective. This will include exploring new and innovative models and working with national providers to consider how programmes can better address needs of island communities and businesses. (Sustainable Economic Development)
  • Work in partnership to support strategic projects which deliver sustainable economic growth in the islands, e.g. Orkney Research and Innovation Campus and Stornoway port developments. (Sustainable Economic Development)
  • Drive the many socio-economic opportunities arising from the 2019 Science and Innovation Audit report "Maximising Opportunities for the Marine Economy in the Highlands and Islands" as well as enhance those arising from growth deals. (Sustainable Economic Development)
  • Mandate the delivery of gigabit-capable connectivity to selected island locations, through the R100 programme, with many other island communities to benefit once contracts are finalised. (Digital Connectivity)
  • Call on the UK Government to prioritise early investment in Scotland's islands as part of their plans for full fibre roll-out by 2025. (Digital Connectivity)

Further to the SOs and Commitments identified from within the NIP as implementation delivery priorities, LAs also contributed constructive observations, suggestions and highlighted areas of concern relative to the key priority areas (Transport/Sustainable Economic Development/Digital Connectivity) as summarised in the following three sections.


Argyll and Bute Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and North Ayrshire Council each highlighted the potential value and importance of developing a "Smart Ticketing" approach for travel to our islands. Discussions recognised the pressures resulting from physical distancing measures and consequent reduced capacity that was required across public transport. If implemented, a 'smart' approach could prioritise the business, educational, and economic needs of the local community, while continuing to safeguard health and safely support Tourism.

Shetland Islands Council wished to repeat a point that has been made previously to Scottish Government, regarding the provision of full revenue and capital costs required for current and future internal ferry services. Their point referenced "strong cross-party support following Parliamentary debate in December 2017" and SG's 'Empowering Scotland's Island Communities':

"the provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any Council such that it could be counter to the principles of Article 170, with particular reference to the revenue and ferry replacement costs of the internal ferry services of Orkney and Shetland, and commits to meaningful negotiation now to conclude this issue".

Shetland Islands Council communicated that internal ferry services enable daily commutes to access jobs, hospital services, participation in education, training, sport, cultural and leisure activities and provide transportation for Tourism, and island businesses. Consequently, any reduction in these services would have an immediate and very serious detrimental effect on extremely fragile remote island areas' economic and social wellbeing.

Orkney Islands Council believe that Transport is an even greater priority now than before this pandemic. They indicated that their outer isles are profoundly disadvantaged by the comparatively small sizes of ferries, which are perceived to be a significant and continuing equality issue for those living in these areas.

Orkney Islands Council also indicated that Transport is an essential pre-requisite to economic recovery on the islands, as it affects Tourism, Agriculture, Food and Drink, and many other sectors of the economy. These sectors, in many cases, represent very small and marginally profitable family businesses, which make the difference between a family being able to make a living on, or having to move away from, the islands.

In their response, Argyll and Bute Council urged Transport Scotland to undertake a national review of air services, and investigate potential synergies between services which are currently operated largely in isolation by a range of different organisations. Argyll and Bute Council believe that this would be in keeping with the SG's 'Scottish Ferries Review', which took place over 10 years ago. This review should take into consideration public services and those operating commercially. In particular, the LA believe that Coll and Colonsay were affected in a way that was distinctly different to other islands as the Council subsidised aircraft had to be grounded for maintenance during the pandemic.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar requested that CalMac continue to explore creative solutions for increasing ferry capacity, whilst aligning with necessary physical distancing measures, to ensure an economic recovery for the islands in a safe and sustainable way.

Sustainable Economic Development

A shared consensus exists regarding the particular fragility of island economies. The pandemic has highlighted the pitfalls of the over–reliance on certain business sectors (e.g. Tourism), which are often dominated by low paid jobs. Furthermore, the aging demography of islands has resulted in increased pressures for communities and LAs during the pandemic (i.e. high numbers shielding and requiring support). Respondents consistently identified the requirement for resilience to underpin the recovery phase, in all aspects and sectors of the economy, including:

  • food supply
  • supply chains for industry
  • digital connectivity and communications
  • transport networks
  • community confidence
  • energy supply, and
  • public services.

Shetland Islands Council intimated that for island communities, the issue of resilience is all the more pressing, as island areas face difficulties relating to distance from supply chains and main markets, inadequate connectivity, physical barriers, high costs of living and services, and dispersed populations. Suggested mechanisms to overcome these barriers included special consideration in national policy responses, a greater LA say in the impacts of national policy on regions and localities, and greater delegated decision making; in order that policy responses can be appropriately shaped for local needs. Shetland Islands Council also noted potential sources of recovery, highlighting large-scale infrastructure projects (in pivotal sectors) that can generate employment, have positive supply chain impacts and contribute to the aforementioned local resilience.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar also discussed the inextricable link between sustainable economic development and transport, as a complete dependency on ferry transport can determine the viability of Tourism. As a result, special measures have been requested to support, develop and protect island ferry services.

Digital Connectivity

Digital connectivity featured prominently in each response. Shetland Islands Council referred to this as "a basic necessity of modern living". A survey of S4-6 pupils undertaken in May 2020 (Senior Phase Pupil Voice in Shetland – COVID-19) also showed that 92.7% of respondents were communicating with friends using social media. Figures from the Shetland Employment Survey (2017) also showed that the proportion of local employers using social media platforms for business purposes rose from 45% in 2014 to 60% in 2017, use of cloud computing rose from 23% to 36%, and use of applications for smartphones, tablets etc. rose from 26% to 37%. The LA highlighted in our survey that, despite local and Scottish Government efforts to make improvements, it is estimated that 26% of homes and businesses in Shetland are still not connected to a network capable of delivering 30mbps or more; well above the estimate of 5% in Scotland.

Shetland's COVID-19 experience has shown how critical digital connectivity is to their islands. Being connected enables local businesses to continue operating, pupils and teachers to engage in online learning through GLOW (Scottish Schools National internet system, which had average daily usage of 1193 and 3136 sessions respectively during the pandemic). Additionally, local democracy is enabled through virtual meetings, Council staff can continue providing essential services like Government grant disbursement, and families can stay connected with loved ones while adhering to lockdown measures. Having agreed its 'Recovery and Renewal Framework' on 2 July 2020, the LA aims to build a more resilient and flexible organisation that can withstand future pandemic waves, where people and communities are able to plan and deliver solutions to future challenges. Within the Framework, digital services are a key priority, and crucial for delivering the Council's social and economic growth objectives, both in terms of delivery of Council functions and provision of services to others.

Shetland Islands Council noted that the NIP highlights how the National Performance Framework contains a commitment that "every member of society has a right to live with dignity and to enjoy high quality public services wherever they live". Consequently it was felt that if high speed and resilient mobile and broadband connectivity is not addressed, there is a risk of a widening digital divide. This could become a serious issue for fairness and equalities across the islands, particularly as we learn to adjust post-COVID-19.

Additional Concerns and Priorities

Although only Argyll and Bute Council highlighted Population as being one of the three most important Strategic Objectives (SO) within the NIP at this time, this featured prominently as a concern throughout survey responses. Shetland Islands Council linked the provision and development of key services to the prevention of unabated population decline. Shetland Islands Council communicated the vital importance of modernising and improving provisions such as education, health and care to prevent inequalities in basic quality of life, in comparison with other areas of Scotland and the UK. In the absence of developments that tackle this issue, coupled with employment pressures and their knock-on effect on economic activity, house prices, business start-ups etc., there is concern that a considerable downward trajectory in the islands would become increasingly unsustainable.

The importance of prioritising Education, and supporting children and young people as they grow and develop at a time of great uncertainty, was also noted. This included the need to develop increased opportunities for vocational training and skills development, which can support employment transition, local business sustainability, individual wellbeing, and resourcing of future economic development opportunities.

The value and importance of confirming the Islands Growth Deal for the three Island Authorities was identified as a key priority (subsequent to survey completion UKG and SG match funded a £100M Islands Growth Deal). The underpinning objectives for the Islands Deal are to create the conditions to harness unique islands assets, and to help address some of the key economic and social challenges across our islands – all of which is central to recovery for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council.



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