"Continuity is needed" after connectivity Forum

The Islands Forum, which brings together representatives of island communities around the UK, creates a useful opportunity to raise issues and concerns directly with senior ministers – but greater continuity is required.
The delegates at the Islands Forum this week, held at Lews Castle.The delegates at the Islands Forum this week, held at Lews Castle.
The delegates at the Islands Forum this week, held at Lews Castle.

​That was the conclusion of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar leader, Paul Steele, at the end of this week’s Islands Forum in Stornoway. It was chaired by UK Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove and attended by Scottish Transport Minister, Fiona Hyslop.

Councillor Steele stressed that, to make it effective, there needs to be more follow-up between meetings of the Forum to ensure matters discussed are being followed up on. This has been addressed by the formation of sub-groups.

One of these could deal specifically with transport issues including ferries and air services. Mr Gove promised to “examine ways of improving co-ordination across the United Kingdom to develop connectivity and coherent transport links for islands”.

The theme of this week’s session, the third to be held as part of the Levelling Up agenda, was “connectivity” with the focus on air and sea travel and roads as well as digital connectivity for island communities.

Substantial funding from both UK and Scottish Government have gone into spreading high-speed broadband to all corners of the country. Councillor Steele argued for the “outside-in” principle so that the most economically fragile areas would benefit from this funding.

That approach has been sidelined by the Scottish Government’s R100 programme since they passed decision-making to BT Openreach, leaving a large proportion of island households effectively excluded for years to come.

Calls were made for greater cohesion among the various programmes and funding streams for digital connectivity being promoted by both governments.

On Levelling Up budgets, there was support for island-specific funding streams rather than competition with much larger and better-resourced mainland authorities. While no commitment was given, Mr Gove is understood to have promised to consider this option.

He did not bring with him any specific funding announcements though there is intense interest, not least in the Western Isles, in what the next tranche of Levelling Up funds will contain. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar was unsuccessful with its bid last time.

There is some expectation that there will be an announcement about the next round of Levelling Up funds within the next few weeks with hopes that this will not involve another protracted bidding process, rather than being built on existing applications and information.

Mr Gove, who has personally driven the Islands Forum, said after the Lews Castle meeting: “It was a very productive and informative session which brought me up to date on island issues and what we can all do by working together. Everything discussed will be followed up on”.

The Secretary of State also met with a number of island businesses and organisations and stressed there are a range of funds that can be accessed.

In a formal statement afterwards, he said: “Islands have so much to offer, and through the Islands Forum the UK Government is helping them get the most out of their potential.

“It’s now time to make real progress on improving connectivity and that’s why we have established a new group to take this work forward.

“We need to make sure we have a long term strategy for our islands as part of our work to level up all parts of the United Kingdom.”