Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Islands in the downstream – governance in the Scottish islands


Flotta, Orkney

In this article, Adele Lidderdale, PhD Researcher from the Institute for Northern Studies, UHI in Orkney, provides an update on her PhD research into island governance systems and the implications this holds for local government – which is part of the LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre.

The last 18 months or so have been a steep learning curve, constantly changing in terms of understanding, evaluating and communicating complex cases related to governance in Scottish islands. These cases revolve around the National Islands Plan and the Islands (Scotland) Act. In a previous article, I discussed being based in Orkney and having experience with technocratic solutions implemented in islands to address climate change and other issues identified in the National Islands Plan. These issues are crucial for supporting islands in achieving a more balanced regional development trajectory within Scottish and UK political landscapes, especially considering the post-Brexit loss of European development funds. The stakeholder map below provides an overview of the challenges in reaching an agreement on regulatory instruments aimed at driving change.

While stakeholders have generally agreed on the 13 strategic outcomes in the National Islands Plan, there has been consistent criticism that current legislation falls short in supporting sustainability for island populations. Specifically, the tools for local areas to meaningfully contribute to their own wellbeing are lacking. Despite the National Islands Plan being intended for ministers to deliver, there are shortcomings in the plan’s implementation strategy and funding for local authorities to meaningfully contribute. The delivery of island program funding through a competitive tendering approach has created disparities in funding received by different island regions. Additional funding will be allocated in collaboration with local authorities starting from this financial year.

Request for additional powers

Local authorities – often termed the smallest unit of governance in the UK – bear the brunt of austerity measures imposed by central governments, particularly local authorities that govern islands. Demonstrated in 2013 with the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign launched conjointly by ‘The Big 3’ (Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles local authorities) to address calls from islanders that felt they were being peripheralised by governance arrangements. A decade later, Orkney Islands Council is once again exploring ‘alternative models of governance‘ notably without collaboration with the other island authorities and looking to other small island developing states (SIDS) for inspiration. The legislation supports the theory with functions within Part 5 of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 for local authorities to formally explore alternative governing arrangements.

At the heart of it all

Centralisation and peripheralisation have been at the heart of research conducted so far. These dynamics are evident in funding streams, with the most advanced programmes and projects being delivered by the Scottish Government. Also evident is access to decision making networks and people’s experiences in engaging with programmes and projects under the National Islands Plan. Centralisation is not limited to Scotland negotiating its own terms of independence, as seen in the recent use of the Scotland Act to block Scotland’s democratically mandated policies such as the Gender Recognition Act and Deposit Return scheme. The effects of the centralisation creep of governance in the Scottish islands context can be likened to dams and diversions in a river upstream. The islanders at the estuary looking to manage the use of water upstream where other users divert the flow of resources to different places. Solutions are more complex than looking up and relying on rain. With COSLA and Scottish Government Verity House Agreement and now a “new deal‘ for local government to be negotiated has a new window, or even borehole, opened providing a new flow of fresh water for islands?

Island Resilience and Sustainability

While island communities may be resilient, a resilient state is not necessarily conducive to a sustainable one. Island governance infrastructures have been managing complex uncertainties for decades. The global norm involves continued disruption, and Scottish islands consistently display markers of reduced resilience, such as gender disparities, inflated energy costs, limited market opportunities, and reduced access to digitized markets and services. While integration into national development targets is important, can islands be expected to do so at the continued detriment of their own well-being?


One thought on “Islands in the downstream – governance in the Scottish islands

  1. All very valid points and this can equally apply to remote rural LAs some of which like Argyll and Bute have island communities. Centralisation has been an ongoing issue for these communities for decades now. The islands ACT was considered a major advance in communicating with these communities but it has yet to live up to the promise it originally set out to deliver. Hugely under resourced and over promised people are kept engaged by last minute bags of cash covering a wide spectrum of issues with no prioritization. Strategic longer term planning has been placed on the back burner and meanwhile the economies of these places are being undermined by a lack of investment in critical economic infrastructure and legislation that effectively places barriers to economic prosperity. Islanders have had enough but they seem increasingly powerless to counter the dominance of the cities and urban areas. Something needs to change.

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