The Island Bonus Scheme: Just a stunt?

If the Scottish Government believes that Island Bonus Scheme is the answer, then what is the question?

The main problems on the islands are depopulation, access to housing, transport, poor digital infrastructure and limited employment opportunities.

Each island group is different to the others and each individual island itself is different to any other. Of course there are issues that all islands suffer from, but it is difficult to see the five million pounds set aside for the Island Bonus Scheme, broken down into 100 batches of up to £50,000, as anything other than a stunt. Perhaps, this is just a gimmick to distract people from the problems noted above, for some of which the Scottish Government is directly responsible.

In Shetland, for example, depopulation in Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula, Papa Stour and Skerries is a problem; lack of housing, limited inter-island ferry services and limited access to employment all contribute to this. Second home and holiday homes are also a major issue, increasing property prices and decreasing availability. In Denmark, for example, you do not get to buy a house unless you have been resident for five years.  Is this an approach that should be considered?

If a potential new-islander has £50,000 in their pocket, surely this will push up house prices even further. Locals are already priced out of the market; the Island Bonus will not help. There were no houses for sale advertised in the Shetland Times this week; there have not been many over the last few months. Houses are selling by word of mouth, and over the odds. 

Transport is a problem too. There are issues with bus service availability and pricing. Inter-island ferries timetables make getting about Shetland problematic and while increased tourism through staycations is welcome, getting on an already busy ferry can be difficult. 

Digital connectivity is no better – the further you go from the centre of Shetland, the slower the internet gets. This is just not acceptable in 2021 when so much work is now based on access to decent internet speeds. 

In addition to the issues that cause many to leave the islands, locals are becoming suspicious: what is the motivation of a new-islander, are they being bribed to move?  How long will they stay?  Do they have to refund the money if they leave within a set time? There might be justification for the Island Bonus if the funding could be targeted towards professionals such as health workers or teachers in the specialist subjects. Locals would see the benefit in such a scheme, but no details have been released on this.

It would appear there were even problems with the public consultation on the proposed scheme. 

The whole tenor of the consultation process seemed to be ‘the scheme is going ahead regardless of what is fed back’. Leading locals to ask, ‘what is the point of a consultation when it has already been decided that the scheme is going ahead?’ There was no option in the consultation to oppose the introduction of the Island Bonus.

The consultation survey asked about capital investment in the islands.  My suggestions would be:

  • Update digital infrastructure
  • Build a new hospital in Lerwick
  • Replace ferries with fixed links – Norway is building tunnels having started with ferries then moving to bridges
  • Electric Vehicle recharging infrastrcture

I am sure the other island groups could just as easily come up with a similar shopping list; five million pounds would not stretch far. The Islands Bonus is just window dressing.

The Scottish Government’s time would be better spent asking islanders what the issues are, some of which are listed above. After this, the Scottish Government should crack on and fix the problems instead of this head line grabbing nonsense.

Brian Nugent