Presiding Officer, for a boy born and bred in Glasgow, I cannot claim to have island heritage like some members in this Chamber. And I have often said my heart truly belonged to Glasgow, as a result of the visits I have made since May, Glasgow might just have to get used to sharing my heart with our islands.
These visits to 18 of Scotland's islands – and many more to go – show the extent of the contribution our islands make to Scotland's cultural and economic well-being. I was delighted to be able to meet with some members during a visit to these islands.
Scotland's islands are key to maintaining and nurturing the health of Scotland's second language. They play host to myriad musical and cultural festivals – often borne and supported by their local communities. They are home to 16 of our world famous whisky distilleries.
And their diverse, stunning landscapes, coasts and seas are rightly now protected through nature designations, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Marine Special Protection Areas, to conserve and develop their unique habitats, wild and sealife, attracting visitors from home and abroad.
That contribution and those interests have rightly been championed through the Our Islands, Our Future campaign and I want to pay tribute to the three island councils which led that campaign.
We published our response – 'Empowering Scotland's Island Communities' – in 2014, setting out a comprehensive package of actions and measures to empower Scotland's island communities.
Presiding Officer, I am determined to ensure that the actions we take forward in this Parliament meet the needs and interests of all who grow up, live and work on Scotland's islands, as well as those who provide services and run businesses.
That is why, at the earliest opportunity, I prioritised meeting with constituency and list MSPs, Council Leaders, and visiting the islands myself to hear directly from those who know best about the riches, benefits, opportunities and indeed, challenges of island life.
Over the next year, this Government will bring forward an Islands Bill, which I was delighted to introduce as a year one bill, reflecting a key commitment in 'Empowering Scotland's Island Communities' and on the proposals we consulted on at the end of last year. That bill will focus on:
- a national Islands Plan;
- statutory protection for the Western Isles Scottish Parliamentary Constituency Boundary;
- flexibility to create one- or two-member wards for island communities; and
- extension of powers – focussed primarily around the Zetland/Orkney County Council Acts of 1974.
I intend to continue engaging with local authorities and communities throughout the bill process to ensure that it stays focused on their needs and interests. And I am even willing to consider the Japanese Remote Island Development Act that David Stewart MSP raised with me at Committee on Tuesday!
I know other parties had similar commitments in their election manifestos so I hope this means we can work together to deliver a seminal piece of legislation that will have lasting benefits for our island communities.
This summer, I worked with local authorities to establish the newly created Islands Strategic Group, with its expanded membership to include representatives of Argyll & Bute, Highland and North Ayrshire, alongside representatives of the three wholly islands councils. This group will help to shape the bill and indeed the National Islands Plan and I look forward to receiving their input and guidance.
Together, the bill, the plan and the strategic group form a powerful triumvirate of actions which will help strengthen and support the unique needs and interests of Scotland's islands. They will also help to address the undoubted challenges they face – one of the most fundamental is depopulation.
Growing the islands' population is crucial for island economies and community sustainability.
Clearly, we need to give particularly young people and young families more reason to stay on the islands – the presumption against closing rural schools helps, as does our investment in modern apprenticeships and work to cut youth unemployment, while investment in social housing through the Rural Housing Fund and the recently announced new £5 million Islands Housing Fund will help to create more affordable homes.
But we also need to ensure that migrants can continue to come to our islands to work in key sectors, such as care, agriculture, aquaculture, hospitality and food and fish processing. Immigration is currently, fully reserved to the UK Government, but we will continue to press for a migration system that meets all of Scotland's needs.
We will also continue to press for guarantees about EU nationals already living and working on our islands, to ensure they get the certainty they need and deserve. And explore all options to maintain Scotland's membership of the single market and continue to enjoy the benefits from freedom of movement.
Connections and infrastructure are vital to sustainable island life. Ferries are crucial for islanders and must provide reliable, safe, comfortable and affordable access to and from the mainland.
This Government has made a clear commitment to our ferry services, investing a record £1 billion in port infrastructure, vessels and services since 2007. On my first day in post, the £900 million contract to operate ferry services on the west coast of Scotland, was awarded to CalMac Ferries Ltd and came into effect on 1 October.
We will maintain Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on the west coast which has resulted in lower fares and increased passenger numbers.
And we have already begun to progress our commitment to reduce fares on ferry services to the Northern Isles. I will report on the findings from the recent consultation shortly. I consider it important to take forward a scheme which reflects the wishes of those who use these ferry services.
We want to get the scheme right and work best for those who will benefit from it the most.
Air services also matter. We are committed to continuing the Air Discount Scheme through an investment of £8.5 million, at the current 50% discount rate, to make air travel to and from the islands more affordable.
And as agreed at the last meeting of the Islands Transport Forum, the extension of the scheme to business travel will be considered following the Autumn Statement and the publication of the draft Scottish budget.
Sticking to the theme of connectivity: digital connectivity is arguably most important to remote island communities – it has the potential to transform how islanders and island businesses thrive.
We are determined to ensure that every premise in every part of Scotland has access to superfast broadband by 2021.
Our Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme is helping to make that possible – across the Highlands and Islands as a whole, at least 84% of premises will have access to fibre by the end of 2016.
We know there is more to do to ensure island communities like Orkney and Shetland get better access to faster broadband and mobile signals.
Which is why we are working with the mobile industry to improve coverage across all of Scotland through our mobile action plan – the only one of its kind in the UK.
A key way of addressing challenges is by making the most of the opportunities islands offer. Scotland's Islands have some of the best renewable energy resources in Europe, with the potential between Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles to supply up to 5% of total electricity demand in the GB market by 2030. Rapid growth by the 2020s could result in economic benefits worth up to £725 million for local economies.
We are doing all we can with the powers we have, funding innovative approaches through our Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES). However, larger-scale island projects need a route to market that recognises their distinct characteristics and addresses barriers to development.
We came close to achieving this through the Scottish Islands Renewables Delivery Forum, with unprecedented cooperation involving the Scottish and UK Governments and island stakeholders.
But the UK Government has now changed its earlier commitment to provide a minimum allocation for wave and tidal stream technologies. Its decision to consider withdrawing support for island wind is enormously frustrating and disappointing, coming at a crucial time for both marine and island wind projects. We will continue to press UK ministers to deliver the necessary support our islands need to realise their renewable potential.
Of course, there are other threats to our islands' wellbeing, resulting from UK Government actions. The outcome of the EU referendum could have far reaching consequences for our island communities.
EU funding has been crucial in creating economic investment, infrastructure, jobs and services and the breathing space created by the UK Government guarantee for all EU funding up to 2020, which our own Finance Secretary has committed to passing on in full, is welcome.
Let me be clear – this Government will do all that we can, I hope with the support of other parties in this Chamber, to make the case for Scotland's relationship with the EU to continue, with membership of the single market and the benefits that brings to our islands.
A further uncertainty concerns the promised devolution of powers over the Crown Estate. We want to ensure that coastal and island communities benefit from Crown Estate devolution – we need clarity from the UK Government that it will honour in full the terms of the Smith agreement.
While we continue to press for that, we are also preparing the ground for devolution of the powers.
The transfer is, of course, of interest to all local authorities, and in particular the three wholly island councils who want to explore the possibility of management pilots. I will work with them and the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment to consider proposals fully. But I can reiterate today our commitment – to ensure that Scotland's island and coastal communities will benefit from marine income from Crown lands within 12 nautical miles of the coast.
I am very excited about the year one bill, particularly island proofing; all I can say at this moment is that I look forward to working with members across the chamber to take this forward.