Scotland’s Island Communities: Meeting the Challenges
A survey by the Scottish Islands Federation
Almost 80% of the UK’s inhabited islands are found in Scotland. There are 93 and they stretch from North Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute, Highland, to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. An asset to Scotland and with enormous potential the islands are often held back by a range of challenges, some in common with the rest of rural Scotland and some intrinsic to their small island situation.
We wanted to capture the current thinking from island communities themselves about the main issues affecting them and how they have responded or could respond.
The survey is the beginning of a process that will be used primarily as a foundation on which the work of S.I.F. will be based. It provides a valid resource which has been endorsed by the participants and we would like to thank the 72 groups that took part and all the networks that helped to promote it.
- Methodology & sample
A survey was circulated to all the community councils, development trusts , community companies and trusts that we could find contact details for – we aimed to reach the islands with a population of 10 or more (63 islands). A total of 72 responses were received reaching 34 of the 63 islands and giving coverage of 54%.
Figure 1. Islands & survey responses
|Local Authority||Inhabited islands||Total population||Islands with pop of 10 or more||No of survey responses|
|Argyll & Bute||23||15,105||15||25|
- The islands – population
The islands have a combined population of 103,000 and while the overall population grew by 4% between 2001 and 2011, 32% of the islands showed a population decline. The majority of these were amongst the smaller islands with populations less than 50.
A similar picture from our survey; 34% felt the population was declining and the majority of these were the smaller islands.
The real concern highlighted was the shifting demographics with population becoming increasingly skewed towards older people.
Population change and demographics:
Growing 34% Declining 34% Stable 31%
Balanced age group 28% / Ageing 72%
- The biggest challenges
Using a list of common challenges that hinder island development and sustainability people were asked to attach a level of importance to each. Here are the issues listed in % of importance.
- Employment 43%
- Broadband coverage 40%
- Transport links 39%
- Availability of affordable housing 34%
- Freight/carriage 31%
- higher cost of living 30%
- Limited voice in local national 29%
- Small population/population 28%
- access to social and elderly care 27%
- access to health care 26%
- Mobile coverage 26%
- Access to local services 24%
- transport costs 23%
- Access to primary /secondary school 18%
- Access to further education 16%
- Availability of land or crofts 15%
Many of these challenges are interconnected and it became clear that they are all considered important. This feedback is closely aligned with the draft Manifesto for Rural Scotland which, based on the collective views of a much larger representation of rural communities, includes each of these challenges as needs that must be addressed.
Each island has its own unique circumstances and theses are reflected in how the challenges were prioritised:
Figure 4. The top 5 per region in order of priority
|Argyll & Bute||Highland||Eilean Siar||Orkney||Shetland||N Ayrshire|
|Transport||Health care||Employment||Broadband||Sample too small||Sample too small|
|Housing||Elderly/Social care||Voice||Small pop|
- What could make the most difference?
Consideration was given to the opportunities that could make a difference to the sustainability of island communities:
- Digital connectivity: 39%
- Affordable housing 37%
- Transport 33%
- Community land asset ownership 28%
- Business and enterprise 25%
- health and social care 25%
- Marine development 25%
- Food and agriculture 25%
- Renewables 21%
- tourism development 20%
- heritage and culture 19%
- Energy efficiency 14%
Amongst the top issues are broadband and transport. These were also highlighted at the recent EU Committee of the Regions Conference in Shetland which S.I.F. attended.
‘One of the key issues of the seminar was connection to high-speed broadband, while transport and an ageing population were also highlighted’.
- The islands – voice and local leadership
The majority of island communities that took part in the survey have a local plan in place. Some have already made great strides in tackling barriers. 47% owned assets and were able to generate some income for local reinvestment.
Island communities themselves are best placed to understand the barriers and solutions and also have the potential to become key drivers in island sustainable development. However, many felt that the support, investment and voice needed for this to happen on a larger scale, isn’t currently there. This is a point endorsed by the Scottish Community Alliance in its report ‘Local People Leading’ which calls for a much stronger community sector.
Communities themselves are often not engaged in the decision making that affects them. Only 36% answered our question on engagement in key consultations.
|Some of the obstacles
‘Lack of income means we cannot employ labour so everything has to be done by volunteers.’
‘Funding and access to expertise to progress our priorities.’
‘Volunteer fatigue, staff support, no secure income at present’
‘Planning and other centralised decision making processes do not allow for the individual island view to be taken fully into consideration’.
‘Rural environments suffer at the expense of regional towns and cities, for example, Inverness’.
- 54% listed a lack of funding and/or the burden placed on volunteers as obstacles that hinder their effectiveness and sustainability.
- The survey highlighted that some communities sense that support, investment and decision making is becoming more centralised making it increasingly difficult to develop good jobs, housing, services, infrastructure and enterprise in the remote areas.
- The survey also suggests that communities themselves are often not engaged in the decision making that affects them – responses indicate that only 36% of the communities that took park in the survey have responded to key consultations affecting the islands.
Percentage of respondents engaged in recent consultations.
- transport review 23%
- Islands Bill 21%
- National Marine Plan 10%
These issues around community empowerment, support and engagement are echoed by communities across Scotland and are highlighted by the Scottish Community Alliance in its report ‘Local People Leading’.
This remoteness from decision-making is exacerbated by island geography and governance and is felt by small islands across Europe. The European Small Islands Federation (ESIN) is championing the case for developing new ‘island sustainability indicators’ to rectify the lack of support and investment allocated to small islands as a result of their current ‘invisibility’ at EU level.
- Working together
The survey indicated a desire for networking events, regular island newsletter, project visits and an annual island event. Topics of interest are prioritised below:
Topics of most interest for networking and information exchange
- Transport 62%
- Renewables 59%
- Affordable housing: 57%
- Tourism 49%
- Heritage and culture 40%
- Health and Social care 36%
- Marine development 36%
- Sustainable fishing 23%
Using the survey as a starting point our aim was to gather the views of island communities themselves about the main issues affecting the islands and how they could be overcome. 72 groups from across 34 individual islands took part and their feedback indicates the following:
- There is an urgent need to find ways of encouraging more young people to live on the islands as well as better ways of looking after an increasingly ageing population.
2 . A common list of challenges hinder island development and sustainability. The top four are felt to be:
3. Some of these challenges are in common with the rest of rural Scotland, some are unique to the islands and some are more keenly felt on the islands due to their unique circumstances: there is a need to understand the small island situation better and recognise that it is different.
4. Opportunities reflect the obstacles and the findings call for strategic action on all the big issues, the top three being:
5. Island communities themselves are best placed to understand the barriers and solutions and also have the potential to become key drivers in local sustainable development: there is a need for a stronger voice for island communities, more engagement in decision making and more local governance.
6. There is an appetite for communities to work together across the islands to share ideas and learn from each other.
- Next steps
S.I.F. is the only organisation in Scotland with an island-specific remit and we work to promote, publicise and advance the interests of Scotland’s islands.
Using the survey feedback as the foundation S.I.F. has identified the following objectives to take forward:
- Promoting innovative sustainable projects and inter-island collaboration.
- Building a representative voice on matters specific to the islands
- Using that voice to inform and influence policy at all levels of government.
- Connecting island communities to share experience, ideas and expertise.
We will take forward actions in our strategy to deliver these objectives in the next year.
Scottish Islands Federation
Comments from the communities that took part in the survey:
Planning and other centralised decision making processes do not allow for the individual island view to be taken fully into consideration. An island is treated in the same way as another area of mainland without appropriate autonomy and local input
We only have a doctor on the island 2 hours a week and otherwise have to go 6 miles on the next island to the surgery. Currently this has been a locum filled position for almost a year.
In the usual way, Government displays a lack of understanding of the implications of island living, with the debacle of the Calmac ferry service as a prime example. Argyll & Bute Council cuts and the resultant service reductions sees a decline in the overall infrastructure of the island. This despite the fact that 8 distilleries make an enormous contribution to the revenue which increases year-on-year.
Improved local democracy. Islands in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland have their own councils. Islay is part of Argyll & Bute the local authority and feels very much on the edge of their decision making and governance. Islay does not have its own councillor but a part of three, currently one councillor lives on Islay but does not solely represent the island. There is a large disconnect between council officials (off the island) and local population. Transport links are paramount for Islay to operate from population, tourism and industry (farming as well as whisky). The service currently received from CalMac does not meet the island’s needs and is impacting negatively on all these areas. Without a robust ferry service and booking system tourists may decide not to visit. The calculation for the roads budget is determined by the population and takes no account of the heavy lorries required by the whisky industry or agriculture.
Due to a lack of affordable housing, many young people leave the island (or are unable to return once having completed uni etc). As a result we have a limited work force on the island and a reduced skill pool.
All of the above are extremely important to island’s future growth and sustainability
Ageing population and population decline with so many problems preventing regeneration with new jobs, housing and poor transport links mean that we are fighting a losing battle at present. the opening of the Atlantic Islands Centre is beginning to make a difference – low-level and part-time jobs. Loss of the Postbus 3 years ago means there is no public transport for the 3 mile run from each village to the ferry. Ferry service is reasonable, but not conducive to attracting families in an age when teenagers need access to activities after school in the evenings.
Many of these issues are interlinked, or there’s at least some sort of chicken/egg scenario. Especially with housing and employment, you can’t employ people if there isn’t suitable housing in the area, and if there isn’t enough housing, people will be driven away limiting job creation and business opportunities. Most of our islands do not boast a high availability of private rented sector housing. The tourist season and self-catering accommodation contribute to this issue. In terms of social housing, it is very difficult to demonstrate need for further development in small communities as those in housing need are unlikely to register on waiting lists; turnover tends to be lower.
All these issues are of the utmost for fragile, remote and rural communities. They all hinder development and sustainability to some degree. Various schemes and pilots have been run and these go someway to tackling the very real issues.
Access to child-care is an issue on this island. Fuel poverty is a big issue on the island. The “removal” of renewable energy subsidies is an issue.
There is a need for all-year employment opportunities, for pre-school childcare facilities, for a home for the historical society and for greater provision of cultural and artistic activities.
transport links are crucial for community yet this is an area where Council is making cuts.
General feeling is that we need to grow population (e.g. double or treble over next 5 to 15 years), create new housing opportunities, and jobs and general sustainability of the community. We are working on it and have made some significant positive progress.
With such low population numbers, the viability of the small isles communities is constantly being challenged. Broadband has hugely facilitated visitor access and tourism is now the main industry on the islands
Your list above is too simplistic and assumes or implies that the categories are separate. They are not. The usual problems of jobs/houses that have always beset remote rural communities have been overtaken in recent years by declining basic services, particularly health care. If we had 100 more people on the island we would all have better health care because increase in allocated resources would confer better services to all, so is it a population “problem” or a health care “problem”? We could get more people here if there were more jobs, so is it an employment “problem”? New people won’t come to work on an island with failing health care and no suitable housing, so is it back to being a housing or health care “problem”? Unfortunately, centralised budgeting leads to a demand for this kind of listing of problems, which is not helpful. We have had £25m invested in various infrastructure projects on the island in the recent 10 years or so, but if NHS Highland withdraw our primary health care and out of hours care then the population will just move away (apart from a hard core) and all that investment (not from NHS, so they don’t care) will be wasted. The national policies and procedures of many spending arms of government simply don’t work at these sorts of levels and locations – you can’t move costs to customers by taking away the district nurse and asking people to drive to A&E when those people live on an island – there is no A&E we can drive to when the ferry doesn’t run.
Access to 24/7 HEALTH CARE is top of the list of priorities to sustain population levels, economic development and recreational/leisure activities. We need affordable housing, so people who come to work here (mostly in the tourist industry) can find somewhere to live. Without this sustainable economic development is not going to happen. The state of the roads needs to be addressed; ‘Calum’s road’ in the North of the island has become a major attraction over recent years but the road that takes you there is in a deplorable state. Our roads are falling apart due to lack of maintenance of drains and bridges, remedial filling of potholes is totally inadequate. Transport costs – RET has made a difference to the tourist industry, but none whatsoever to local traffic and the cost of carriage of goods. In my opinion locals (i.e.commuters) should have access to a season pass and the cost of commercial goods on the ferry should be greatly reduced. We pay 3% extra for goods, a cost that is reflected in the retail price of food in our shop. Some of the above are presently satisfactory, but vital to retain, such as our local primary school, and access to secondary education on Skye. Broadband speeds are ‘reasonable’ at present, but should be brought and kept in line with the rest of the country. Same for mobile phone coverage.
Housing – vital to arrest population decline and falling school roll. Staffin in a National Scenic Area which restricts development and threatens sustainability of Staffin. Stable, all-year round employment is badly needed in our district to retain our population.
Rural environments suffer at the expense of regional towns and cities, for example, Inverness. It is perceived that funding is more directed at city areas, and less attention to local rural issues, including Transport, again, for example the resumption of air services to Skye.
have not ticked a least important as they are all key to our lifestyle in one way or another. There are many items listed which will have a major influence in what we can do to address our priorities. Broadband and mobile coverage is important for business, Health and social care and education and farming users as well as our emergency services communications. Living on an island transport is again critical to all aspects and freight costs are linked to this. Being an island in a predominantly mainland local authority gives challenges for balanced representation and the recent boundaries commission review did nothing to improve the position due to the guidelines being defined for the mainland majority with no recognition of the adverse impact to the rural communities.
Employment and housing for young folk is essential
It is costly to live in any of the smaller islands but even more expensive on the 2 smaller satellite islands of this particular parish. The 2 smaller islands also have the issue of access to services that are ALL situated on the largest island of the 3. As the population has seriously declined in the last 3 years through deaths or folk moving away, they have not been replaced by in-migration and the above factors make it less likely that new folk will move here.
All of the above are important priorities in most rural communities but are of higher priority in Island communities.
RET was supposed to reduce travel costs to the mainland but this did not work for residents…was an I,prove net for ‘one off’ visitors but we lost our 6 ticket reduction in price …. Reduced fares for locals taking cars on ferries would help along with a reliable ferry service. At present, middle of summer, we have a reduced service which is choc a bloc due to a ferry breakdown and no contingency service from CalMac. Emergency hospital appointments (among others) are compromised & jeapardised. This does not encourage families to move here.
There is a requirement for infrastructure to allow elderly care and child care services to be delivered in remote areas. All resources for housing are being targeted at Stornoway and surrounding areas. The more remote communities are not getting the same support.
- Recognise that by definition small island communities are different even from remote rural mainland communities, and certainly from connected mainland communities. Then, if Government is happy to support such communities, 2. devolve real budgets for basic services – primary health care, social care, primary education, roads – to Community Councils and let them design and manage provision of services within those budgets.
 Scotland’s Census 2011
 Key topics of discussion at a the EU Committee of the Regions Conference ‘Overcoming the Barriers to Economic Development, a Remote Island Perspective’
 Scottish Community Alliance is a coalition of 19 community-based networks, including S.I.F.
 ESIN aims to help small island communities remain viable through informing and influencing policy and by fostering co-operation between the islands. S.I.F. was one of its founding members in 2001.