Sunday, 30 July 2017 20:09

A (renewed) focus on island communities?

A (renewed) focus on island communities?

While islands are areas of land surrounded by water, many are little more than barren rock with few plants on them and others are amongst the most crowded places on Earth. The largest British island is Great Britain which is the ninth-largest and third most populated island in the world. There are also some 32 islands in England (with the Isle of Wight being the largest); more than 790 islands in Scotland (with Lewis and Harris the largest in the British Isles after the British and Irish mainlands); 11 islands in Wales (with Anglesey the biggest); and 7 islands in Northern Ireland. What are the needs and aspirations of island communities and how can we ensure these are recognised by policy and decision makers? Jessica Sellick investigates.

On 12 July 2017 the first ever meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for UK islands was held. Chaired by Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, the group comprises officers from Ynys Mon, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney & Shetland; with other members drawn from constituencies including Worthing, Hyndburn, Hayling Island, Glasgow, Argyll & Bute, St Ives (includes the Isles of Scilly) and Berwick-upon-Tweed (including Lindisfame).

Mr Seely explained the purpose of the APPG is “…to promote the needs of island communities within Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in particular to support the economic and social wellbeing of island residents. Top of the agenda was a discussion on finding ways of making the case, as islands, for the provision of high-quality, accessible public services and affordable transport provision to and from these islands, plus the right infrastructure investment.

This group will pool islands’ political resources to lobby government for a better deal for our communities. It means we have a much bigger voice at Westminster and it is part of my plan to go into battle for the Island to make sure government listens and does not overlook us.”

On 20 July 2017 a House of Lords debate took place on the transport needs of remote island communities. This briefing, prepared in advance of the debate, provides an overview of transport policies and schemes in England (particularly the Isle of Wight, Isles of Scilly, Holy Island/Lindisfame, Lundy and the Farne Islands) and other areas of the UK. For me, the debate itself provided three new insights.

Firstly, the transport issues facing islanders (particularly the Isle of Scilly) in getting to and from the mainland (e.g. access, seasonality, cost, sole operators/monopolies, market failure and service improvement).

Secondly, discussions around whether island communities are discriminated against by policy and decision makers because they are “offshore”; with frequent comparisons drawn to Scotland where examples were given to demonstrate the care taken to make sure all island communities are not prejudiced in their access to services and travel to the mainland (e.g. frequency of transport services, their cost and all-year round availability). Thirdly, calls on Government to not only invest in transport for island communities but also to ensure that islanders’ voices are heard – with Lord Bradshaw querying how “the Minister has to ask himself and his Government whether they really value the islands”. Other points were raised around funding/the Barnett Formula, rural deprivation and isolation and the need for rural proofing.

With renewed interest in UK islands, what studies, policies and practice already exists and how can this inform (future) Government thinking? I offer three points.

Firstly, how have academics thought about islands? ‘Island studies’ has emerged as part of attempts by academics to study islands ‘on their own terms’.

This can be traced back to the establishment of the International Small Island Studies Association (ISISA) in 1992, and to the creation of the Island Studies Journal (ISJ) by the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2003 – becoming the official journal of the ISISA in 2012 and part of RETI: The Network of Island Universities in 2013.

These were all set up to encourage scholarly [and wider] discussion and debates on island matters including (but not limited to) ‘islandness’, smallness, insularity, dependency, resource management, the environment and community life. Back in 2015 the RETI annual conference and summer school were held at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Orkney. The conference included a dedicated session on “the northern isles” with contributions on Orkney as a gateway to northern Europe, the migration and employment decisions of islanders, Shetland’s cultural and natural heritage and the Orkney model of economic development.

Much academic work has concentrated on the spatial distribution and types of islands – continental versus oceanic, small versus those that are not small, tropical versus temperate, urbanised versus wild. Some studies have explored island life – drawing out differences between living, visiting and/or working on islands alongside the impact of globalisation. The transition made here is from seeing islands as ‘physical spaces’ to seeing islands as ‘living places’.

This has been accompanied by a shift from an original focus on individual islands (pre 1980s) to the general study of islands and island communities (post 1980s).

This has led to a series of debates around: (i) when does an island become an indistinguishable part of the mainland (e.g. Manhattan Island in New York); (ii) ownership and exploration rights – with the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland all seeking at various points to claim interests on Rockall Bank; (iii) how communities based on islands are subject to particular island-related factors (the ‘island effect’) – with this study comparing the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight; and the University of Aberdeen conducting research into how demographic processes shape social and economic change within different island communities in Scotland.

More recently academics have sought to consider islands in the context of place – and their role as a vehicle for cost cutting, prevention and asset-based community development. While islands used to be perceived as isolated laboratories for academic study, today islands and islanders are seen to offer important insights into themes as diverse as sustainable development, innovation, local action (resilience) and livelihoods.

So how can we gather data and evidence about islands and island communities from across the UK to develop a UK research agenda on island communities? How can we ensure this helps us ‘make the case’ to Government for investing in islands?

Secondly, how have policy-makers thought about UK islands? The UK Government, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Assembly have, at various points, recognised the unique circumstances and potential of islands.

In England, this has most recently been seen through the formation of the new APPG, and through initiatives such as a £10 million transport package to improve sea links between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, upgrade roads on the islands and carry out port repairs; and a £250,000 grant to the Isle of Wight Council to develop a range of projects (e.g. locality hubs, co-location of public services) as part of Government’s One Public Estate (OPE) programme.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to island communities includes the publication of ‘empowering Scotland’s island communities’ by the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group and the appointment of an Island Minister (both in 2014). Since August 2016, Scotland has had an ‘Islands Strategic Group’, to consider issues affecting inhabited island communities and to ensure greater Council involvement in helping to find solutions.

Also in August 2016, the UK Government and three Scottish Island Councils (Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles) launched an Islands Framework – including a 10 point plan – for joint working. More recently, in June 2017, the Scottish Government introduced an Islands (Scotland) Bill.

Measures contained in the Bill include a requirement to ‘island proof’ future legislating and policies, the creation of a National Islands Plan, greater flexibility around Councillor representation within island communities and extended powers to island councils regarding marine licencing. Islands Minister Humza Yousaf described how “…this government is committed to promoting islands’ voices, to harnessing islands’ resources and enhancing their well-being.

Measures in this bill underpin this ambition. In particular, the provision to ‘island-proof’ decision-making across the public sector will ensure the interests of islanders are reflected in future legislation and policy from the very outset.

The National Islands Plan will set out the strategic direction for supporting island communities, continuing the momentum generated by the Our Islands, Our Future campaign and the work of the islands strategic group. This is the first ever bill for Scotland’s islands, marking an historic milestone for our island communities.”

The Scottish Government already provides additional funding for local councils with island communities through uplift in their needs-based share of Grant Aided Expenditure (which takes into account characteristics such as remoteness, dispersed populations) and through a Special Islands Needs Allowance (SINA) which recognises the increased cost of delivering services to island communities.

The Scottish Government also takes a sub-national approach to economic development which benefits islands. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which can be traced all the way back to the Highlands and Islands Development Board set up in 1965, is a Government agency leading regional growth and development activities across the highlands and islands.

HIE works with a range of partners in areas such as economic development, housing, culture, education, transport and digital connectivity; aligning these activities to the Scottish Government’s Economic Strategy.

In Wales, the Isle of Anglesey Council and Welsh Government have started the Anglesey Energy Island™ Programme which aims to create a prosperous economy based around energy projects. In January 2017, Welsh and Irish Governments announced the CHERISH project (climate, heritage and environments of reefs, islands and headlands).

With €4 million of EU funds, the project is supporting organisations in both countries to employ cutting-edge technology to analyse island archaeology and heritage sites which are most affected by climate change, coastal erosion and rising sea levels.

With renewed interest from politicians and policy-makers, particularly in England and Scotland, how can we ensure island communities, their needs and aspirations, are recognised in Government activity and legislation across the UK? For example: by island proofing, having a UK islands framework, a new funding formulae, linking to other policy agendas such as devolution and/or by integrating economic and social interventions rather than being silo based?

Thirdly, and finally, how and why are some island communities taking on more responsibility for services and activities and what can we learn from their practice? There are examples where communities have addressed issues (including gaps in services) in ways that generate economic, social and environmental benefits.

For example, in June 1997 the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust took ownership of the Isle of Eigg. After years of instability, neglect and lack of secure tenure, the Trust was able to purchase the island with Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, raising some £1.5 million to do so. The Trust is a company limited by guarantee and registered Scottish charity.

Since the community buyout a strategic plan has been developed, and a range of actions undertaken to make Eigg an attractive place to live, work and visit.

Today the Trust has three subsidiary companies owning and managing An Laimhrig (the island’s shop, post office, tearoom, craft shop, Trust office and toilet/shower facilities), the island’s electricity grid (Eigg Electric), and renovating the Trust’s properties (Eigg Construction Ltd). Residents on Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna have drawn on the Nuka model developed by Alaska’s indigenous people to develop a health and wellbeing centre and train four health and social care support workers based in the local communities to deliver health care to people in the Small Isles.

Residents on the Isle of Wight, supported by the Council, launched a campaign ‘fight for the Wight’, a petition targeted at central Government to call for increased funding for the island.

These examples highlight the importance of local people being in the lead in finding creative solutions to address local issues; as well as recognising the importance of the support they often receive from Local Authorities, statutory bodies, charities, voluntary and community sector organisations and others. There are many more examples of island community involvement in renewable energy schemes (wind, marine), transport, infrastructure, tourism, enterprise and growth. How can we collect and share this practice – what can be transferred and scaled up to support other UK islanders devise their own projects and initiatives when faced with similar issues? What doesn’t work in an island context and why is this?

With the APPG for UK islands currently working with the House of Commons Library to scope out research and further work, and the Islands (Scotland) Bill making its way through parliament, new opportunities are emerging for island communities to have a bigger say in public policy, will this help us find new ways of making the case? Watch this space…

Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. Her current work includes supporting a Lottery programme to help people into paid work; research for the NHS on rural workforce recruitment and retention issues and supporting a community rail partnership. Jessica can be contacted by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or telephone 01522 521211. Website: Twitter: @RoseRegen

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