Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Economy and regeneration, Transport and infrastructure

Scottish National Islands Plan – a vehicle for transformation?


Photo by Ryan Denny on Unsplash

Reporting on a session between Adele Lidderdale’s, PhD Researcher supported by Institute for Northern Studies, LGIU and Orkney Islands Council, Comhairle nan eilean siar and Shetland Islands Council, this paper provides an islands local government insight into whether the Scottish National Islands Plan can provide a vehicle for transformation.

Research outline

Adele’s research evaluates the impact of the Scottish National Islands Plan (NIP) on contemporary island governance in the context of ‘transformational change’ via policy interventions. It investigates complex methods that embrace context as the pivot to investigate the appropriateness of the current policy narrative of transformation in Scotland’s peripheralised communities.

Social network analysis

In the Magenta Book, the UK Government identifies engaging with complexity, rather than reducing it, as the best practice approach to improve policy interventions and reduce risk. Mapping how different organisations engage with the NIP can help identify which impacts a policy may be making, how outcomes can be delivered better and where there may be a requirement to alter the approach. A better understanding of the network delivering the NIP can improve the flow of funding and information. It also provides tools to assist communication, increase efficiency, reduce risk and help deliver better outcomes for citizens by building trust and legitimacy between key stakeholders.

Transformational zones

Policies are fundamentally developed to either stabilise or effect change in differing contexts (Radin 2009: Social Policy). Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 seeks to extend equality of polity as identified by both the island’s authorities via the Our Islands, Our Future campaign, and central governments via the NIP and the Island Growth Deals. Island regions can act as ‘transition zones’ for many aspects of transformation, including, in this case, governance arrangements that can successfully oversee the development of systems and infrastructure required for implementation, sustainability and scale-up to other regions in the UK and beyond. This is a pertinent strategy as island regions in Scotland move from net consumers to producers of energy and host renewable developers, possibly giving rise to renewed negotiations of the terms of community engagement.

Using complexity as a framework, this is an example of path dependency. A revisiting of terms previously negotiated by Shetland and Orkney via county council Acts negotiated circa 1970s. The County Council Acts allowed for a localised financial compensation for hosting energy developments which then allowed for a financial injection for local authorities to provide services and amass strategic reserves. Is there a continued remit for local communities to seek to use this innovation window of opportunity to increase retention of benefits to address local development issues?

North Ayrshire Council (NAC) case study

Alongside the ‘Big 3’ unitary island authorities, Highland, Argyll & Bute, and North Ayrshire, also include islands within their governance remit alongside the mainland counterparts. Island specific funding has seen NAC develop a senior islands officer role and a strategic approach to island planning, in part, to deliver aspects of the NIP. With focused resources available, a suite of strategic plans for the islands, including a list of potential projects with funding required, have been pre-consulted with local communities and community groups. Leading to efficiencies when bidding for annual funding for islands. A senior-level officer brings a praxis point to allow information and resources to flow between layers of the organisation. As such, NAC has managed to attract over £1.5m in funding for a relatively small island-based population. Community organisations within the area have also benefitted from aligning their strategic documents to accumulate additional finance and networking benefits directly within the community.

It could also be argued that the competitive bid-in approach places a barrier to access island-based funding with the risk of perpetuating existing intra-island inequalities by increasing competition between local authority areas where a collaborative approach could be nourished to expedite benefits. However, the NAC case shows the realised benefits of embracing the complexity of island governance and resisting the draw of centralisation concomitantly expediting island issues up local political agenda.


Following Adele’s presentation, the discussion identified three points of frustration in the Islands Plan.

The biggest challenge identified was unsustainable funding models. A problem which was also identified in recent LGIU research on international local government finance models. “Real transformation” required is not reflected in the size of funding, duration, nor current models of ad-hoc and extra pots of ring-fenced, bid-oriented funding that is not part of long-term LG funding in Scotland.

“piecemeal funding, means there is no ability to support investment in long term inclusive growth for communities, and this situation is to be compounded by the effects of climate change.”

An issue that the Verity House Agreement focuses on, declaring that “the default position will be no ring-fencing or direction of funding”, the core point remains that real transformation reels a change in the quantity of funding for islands.

Unlike councils around Glasgow, which can benefit from shared services and economies of scale, challenges facing islands are simply unique compared to mainland councils, with the available tools for innovation ever dwindling.

Linked to unsustainable funding models, another issue raised in the discussion is the difficulty in changing mindsets. Currently, the decision-making process and the lack of meaningful funding means we are not in the “transformational zone” that Adele’s research identified as necessary, so while the Act brought new policies and processes, mindsets are yet to change.

What’s the impact of leaving mindsets unchanged? Despite all the best plans in the world, new processes can simply become a form of “island washing”, and genuine articulated needs are not reflected in either policy agendas or funding. Therefore, concepts like the 20-minute neighbourhood policy and climate debates overflights will continue to misunderstand the Island’s unique context.

Attached to the “mindset issues” is a lack of awareness of the Island’s vital and strategic role in Scotland’s current and future energy demands.

“the real need is for SG to fundamentally view the islands and their role in energy differently.”

Through renewables and hydrogen, Islands are set to be net contributors to Scotland’s energy sector. Still, currently, debates over the costs of ferries simply do not reflect the wider context and significance of the Island’s energy net contributor role and even an accelerator for more significant change.

Questions going forward

  1. What are the most significant issues that islanders are going to face over the next five years?
  2. How could various governance stakeholders promote improved well-being for islanders?
  3. Has the Scottish Government’s National Islands plan impacted local authorities decision-making process?
  4. Has there been considerations to utilise the new functions to request additional powers and generation income in Scottish island legislation?

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