Foreword by the Our Islands Our Future Leaders
Almost exactly one year ago, on 17 June 2013, the three Islands Councils of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles launched the Our Islands Our Future campaign.
We did it believing, as we still do, that our island groups have particular characteristics and face particular challenges due to our geographic remoteness and small populations - and that empowering our local democracies as happens elsewhere in Europe's Island Areas would allow us to unlock the potential of our islands for the benefit of all of our dispersed communities, and for the country itself.
Our belief is that this can be achieved by giving us the tools to sort things out for ourselves, as we are resilient and innovative, and care passionately about our communities. By letting us operate on a level playing field where our disadvantages are recognised and mitigated we can achieve the cohesion that is core to the goals of the European Union. By giving us the fiscal levers to invest in our areas and our communities we can drive sustainable economic growth.
Our campaign respects our differences but recognises that we have much in common, and that our arguments have more weight when they are made by all three of Scotland's councils solely made up of islands.
Taking a non-party political view and expressing no opinion on independence, making arguments that were reasonable and well substantiated, we posed questions to the Scottish and UK governments and the opposition parties, fully aware that there would be no better time to do this than when Scotland is fundamentally examining its own constitutional status.
The campaign launch immediately drew a positive response from the media and our politicians.
The Scottish Government led with the First Minister's Lerwick Declaration committing to subsidiarity and that the islands should have the 'maximum degree of local decision making'.
This was quickly followed up by the establishment of the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group, which over six meetings has allowed us to submit our arguments for empowerment of our local democracies to the Scottish Government for their consideration and response, given substance in this prospectus for the islands.
We do not underestimate the ambition of our campaign, but neither do we underestimate the cultural and economic contribution the islands make to the country.
Our distinct cultures are evident in our musical exports, our Gaelic, Norse, and archaeological heritages, and every time we speak.
The economies of the three island groups rely on a small number of key industries which in the case of fishing, agriculture, aquaculture and oil and gas are of national importance. In the case of renewable energy the peerless resources around our islands and the international lead the islands have in testing and deployment have the potential to make a crucial contribution to national ambitions.
The sea and the seabed are vital to the very survival of our remote island communities.
So it is vital that the communities of the remote island groups acting through and with their Councils and Community Planning Partnerships have the leading role in the sustainable development and exploitation of marine resources, deriving an equitable share of the revenues from them, ensuring that development is not something that is just done to us.
Our remoteness means that connectivity of all kinds is fundamental to us, be it grid connections, postal services, digital communications, or crucially transport by sea or air, both internal to our Island Areas and external to the Scottish mainland.
To us the seas and ferries are our equivalents of roads and railways and buses and trains on the Scottish mainland. They are essential but often place a disproportionate financial burden on our Councils, and we are keen to work with the Scottish Government to address such issues and also to play a central role in design of efficient transport services.
All these issues and more have been discussed in our meetings and responded to by the Scottish Government in this prospectus.
We wish to thank Ministers and officers alike for the productive and helpful way they have worked with us through the deliberations and negotiations of the Ministerial Working Group, not least our chairman, Local Government and Planning Minister Derek Mackay MSP.
Though the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group may have come to an end, our ambitions for our Island Areas will not, and we hope to continue to work productively with the Scottish Government in the future.
We welcome the publication of this document as a very significant step towards realising our ambitions for Our Islands and Our Futures, and recommend it to our Councils and communities for consideration.
Leader, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
Dr Steven Heddle,
Convener and Leader, Orkney Islands Council
Leader, Shetland Islands Council