On behalf of the Comhairle I would like to sincerely thank all the workers, emergency services and volunteers for all their efforts and dedication in keeping our communities safe throughout the most recent period of severe weather. The weather made things particularly difficult for home carers, as well as those working outdoors to restore power to homes and to repair damage to buildings but the resilience shown is testament to how our island communities pull together to mitigate the impacts of severe weather.
Merry Christmas! Comhairle nan Eilean Siar wishes the community of the Western Isles a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.
On Friday evening the Leaders and Chief Executives of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council, representing the Our Islands: Our Future campaign, were announced as the winners of the Leadership category at the Scottish Public Service Awards which took place at the Scottish Parliament.
When we launched the campaign in June 2013, our main priorities were to address a range of common issues through the opportunity presented by the independence referendum. The campaign gained significant commitment from both the Scottish Government and UK Government and I firmly believe that through this initiative we put our islands in the best possible position regardless of what the outcome of the referendum would be.
This award recognises the united commitment of elected members and employees in the three Councils to what has already been achieved, and the work required to deliver greater local autonomy and a more balanced relationship between local and national governments, based on increased knowledge of island needs and opportunities. For us, it was very important to highlight the fact that the needs and status of island areas are different and need to be clearly recognised in the new era for Scotland – one size does not fit all. I am delighted that through this joint working since the launch of the project back in June 2013, we have demonstrated what a cohesive and innovative approach can achieve in bringing real benefits on issues which are of importance to our communities.
The work continues, however, and we are, and will be, in discussions with both the UK and Scottish Governments to try and get the best deal possible for our islands.
I was very concerned when I heard the news that a Lerwick-registered cargo boat had to be towed to safety on Sunday after getting into trouble off Cape Wrath in the north west Highlands. The Norholm lost engine power at about 20:00 and was drifting towards the coast in a westerly gale. The Stornoway coastguard helicopter was scrambled in case the four-man crew had to abandon ship but the Lochinver lifeboat came onto the scene and managed to hold the boat off the shore. The Thurso lifeboat also made its way to provide assistance along with the coastguard tugboat Herakles. However, this is yet another example which demonstrates the need for a west coast based ETV, because it is only a matter of time before accidents happen which could put lives and/or the environment at serious risk.
Despite repeating our serious concerns on this topic, there is still no long-term solution in place for the Western Isles and the West coast of Scotland. We will continue to work with ministers to try and find a solution to this crucial issue.
I would like to congratulate those involved with the Barra and Vatersay Wind Energy Project who were awarded the Best Community Project Award at the Scottish Green Energy Awards which were held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Thursday 27th November. This is a great example of a community working together to utilize the fantastic renewable development opportunities we have here in the Western Isles. I believe that many more communities can use this as an example of what can be achieved through community partnership and innovative thinking.
I welcome the steps being taken by SSE in working with TIG but customers in the Highlands and Islands are still paying a higher unit rate for their electricity. This is unacceptable in an area with the highest levels of fuel poverty and I would repeat the call that SSE should reduce their tariff with immediate effect. SSE claim that they are in favour of universal charges across the country but that will take time to achieve and in the meantime their customers here are paying over the odds and many people are struggling to heat their homes. We need action, now.
Yesterday, along with the Western Isles Poverty Action Group, I met with representatives of the energy company SSE to discuss the 2p per unit surcharge that consumers in the Highlands and Islands pay on their electricity bills.
SSE have committed to undertaking further work on a ‘social tariff’ which could reduce prices but would require the approval of the energy regulator, OFGEM.
We made clear the dissatisfaction and anger of people in the islands to the additional charge on their electricity, amounting to some 15% of the charges they pay. In an area with the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK it is clearly unacceptable. The SSE representatives listened to the case we made and undertook to do further work on how a ‘social tariff’ could be introduced which could reduce bills. Whilst this would require the approval of OFGEM we made clear that we were of the view that SSE could reduce bills now if they were minded to.
A petition of over 1150 names, calling for the surcharge to be removed, was presented to the SSE representatives by the Poverty Action Group.
There is no doubt that the work to the linkspan in Ullapool is both necessary, and will help to make the turnaround much swifter and more efficient, however, we are very disappointed with the lack of communication from CMAL and Cal Mac on this issue.
We still do not know when exactly this 6 week period will come into force or what alternative provision will be made. This is very concerning and I hope that Cal Mac discuss their plans with our communities as soon as possible, particularly as this is a lifeline service.
I fully support the WIPAG’s petition to get electricity prices lowered for H&I consumers.
Over 500 signatures in the space of 24 hours is a clear demonstration that the people of the Highlands and Islands will not stand for what is clearly a discriminatory charge and I sincerely hope that SSE review their charges. The removal of the surcharge would certainly make a huge difference to consumers, particularly as 71% of the population in the Western Isles live in fuel poverty.
I am fully supportive of calls being made for SSE to explain why consumers in the Highlands and Islands pay a higher tariff on electricity charges than consumers in the rest of Scotland.
Not only are we being charged 2p per unit more than the rest of Scotland, we also face higher charges for the transmission of energy out of our area. So we are faced with a double whammy – particularly as much of that electricity is produced in the Highlands and islands. At the same time we have the highest fuel poverty figures in the UK. To impose an additional burden on the people of the Highlands and islands is completely unacceptable and completely contradicts the principle of universality.
I would also be interested to know how long people in the Highlands and islands have been paying this tax and also what is OFGEM’s views on what is clearly a discriminatory charge