Hebridean Celtic Festival

Last weekend’s Hebridean Celtic Festival was a huge success and it was great to see the town so busy with festival goers.  The event was a sell out with many calling it the best festival yet. The real success of the festival lay in the excellent organisational work put in by the HCF team and the many volunteers who made the event possible.  The Hebridean Celtic Festival has become an integral part of our summer and the event is a real draw for tourists, while also encouraging the locals to come out and enjoy the festivities.

Well done to all concerned.

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Population and Migration

The Comhairle is to hold a seminar on the decrease in population and the demographic imbalance in the Western Isles.

The current population estimate for the Outer Hebrides is 27,070 as at 30 June 2015; this represents a decrease in the overall population of 180 persons (-0.7%) from mid-2014 to mid-2015. The decrease in the population is due mainly to the highest levels of negative natural change over the last decade.

Attracting people to our islands is something we have worked on for many years and positive net migration is an essential part of counteracting the negative natural change that the Outer Hebrides continues to experience. The Comhairle agreed at last week’s Policy and Resources Committee to host a Population and Migration Seminar in Autumn 2016 in order to develop a comprehensive policy framework to tackle population decline and migration issues. These islands offer a good quality of life but we also need to provide the infrastructure for people to fulfil their aspirations and for that we need good and affordable housing, good services and most importantly; a multi-agency approach. Our new Islands Minister, Humza Yousaf, and our community planning partners have been invited to the seminar in the Autumn and we look forward to working collaboratively with them to reverse to our population decrease in the Western Isles.

Creating Communities of the Future” is the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership’s (OHCPP) Economic Strategy for the period up to 2020. The ambition is to work with the private and community sectors to create a confident Outer Hebrides that has at its heart a stable economy that offers new growth opportunities; that has strong communications links both within and without the Hebrides and that values its Gaelic, cultural and natural heritage; that is a place where young people are highly valued and where the population is stable and moving towards growth.


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Comhairle links with Refugee Week Scotland

The week Scotland comes together to celebrate the contributions refugees make in Scotland and today we confirmed that Syrian families will arrive in our islands over the summer months

The theme for Refugee Festival Scotland 2016 is solidarity. Gary Christie from the Scottish Refugee Council said that “Now, more than ever, we need to stand together with people who’ve had to flee their homes and are now trying to build new lives here.”

I have informed the Members of the Community Planning Partners and my fellow Elected Members that by the time we meet again in September, the Outer Hebrides will have welcomed Syrian families to be resettled in our community.  In the weeks ahead I would expect that more information is made available.

Local agencies have been working hard to make the arrival of families as discreet and smooth as possible for the families.  At the moment the plans involve housing two related families.  They will be housed in and around the Stornoway area.  The families will be supported where necessary but also will be given the space that they need to re-adjust to family life here in the Outer Hebrides.

I am confident that as a Community we will be welcoming and compassionate and allow the families the scope they will need to resettle within our islands.  All partners are pulling together to do this which is also really encouraging.


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Community Land Conference

Over 70% of the population of the Western Isles now live on community owned land generating economic development throughout the Islands, the Community Land Conference in Stornoway heard at the end of last week.

The driver behind community land buy outs has been to reverse a decades long decline in our rural areas. It is encouraging to see the evidence that shows us just how successful the various trusts have been in stimulating economic development. The trusts represented  have progressed projects ranging from renewable energy generation to housing and tourism developments, investing millions and employing significant numbers of staff in the areas where good jobs are needed most.

Community Land Owners working together with public and private sector providers and national and local government need to find a way to make affordable housing available to retain and attract young families in particular to their areas.

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Ferry Tendering

Good news that the conclusion of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services tendering exercise has been reached and today’s announcement that Caledonian MacBrayne are to be awarded the contract.

The Comhairle worked hard with both bidders during the tendering process and are pleased to note that the process was found to be fair, open and transparent.

We welcome the proposal to award the contract to CalMac and look forward to building on good working relationships with management and staff in the firm.  We particularly welcome a number of the pledges made by the company as part of their bid, in particular the provision of more opportunities for local employment, including more apprenticeships, the creation of a new Director of Community and Stakeholder Engagement post and a Communities Board to better involve communities in investment and services decisions, and the introduction of smart and integrated ticketing systems on key routes.

We will continue with our campaign for more management and administration roles associated with the ferry services to be based in the islands and look forward to working with CalMac and Scottish Ministers to that effect”.

The importance of these lifeline services to the communities and the businesses of the Outer Hebrides cannot and should not be under-estimated.  We are confident that working in partnership with Scottish Ministers, Transport Scotland and CalMac in the delivery of the contract will ensure continuous improvement in these services to the benefit of all.

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Island Youngsters Collect Awards at The House of Lords

I was delighted to hear that Mairi MacLennan, P7 Sgoil nan Loch and Hamish Scott S1 Sir E Scott School attended an awards ceremony at the House of Lords on Monday the 16th of May.

They had taken part in a poetry and art competition commemorating the First World War organised by the charity Never Such Innocence. Mairi won first prize for art in her section and was awarded with a certificate and a £500 prize fund, half for herself and half for her school.  Hamish who wrote a poem about Scapa Flow and the First World War received a certificate and a special commendation and  he will attend the Royal Navy Battle of Jutland Commemorations in Edinburgh at the end of this month.

I would like to congratulate Mairi and Hamish on their success. It is good to see our young people taking part in these competitions. As we all know – the First World War is a constant reminder to us all of the sacrifices made by so many.

Both Mairi and Hamish received a commemorative booklet with the art work and poems of all the winners and runners up from the 2015 -2016 competition from across Britain and the Commonwealth

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North of Scotland Cup Champions – 6 in a row!

I would like to add the congratulations of the Comhairle to the Nicolson Institute Senior Girls Football Team who yesterday afternoon won the North of Scotland Cup for the 6th year in a row (!), beating Dingwall Academy 6-0. A truly magnificent achievement, and credit must also go to their coach Jack Bain for his hard hard work in ensuring that the trophy will be coming back across the Minch.

Well done girls…ONCE AGAIN!

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Cothrom receives allocation of funding from the WIDT

I was pleased to hear that Cothrom Ltd have started work on their Restore Renewables project.

A grant of £10000 from the Western Isles Development Trust (WIDT) to complete Cothrom’s funding package for the installation of 16kw array of photovoltaic panels on the roof of the new Recycling Centre at Ormiclate, South Uist was agreed back in October.  Restore Renewables, which is a part of Cothrom, recycles and repairs furniture, as well as textiles, electrical goods, books and magazines.  Its primary purpose is to provide Cothrom’s learners with skills training, mentoring and work placements. Its core services focus on environmental sustainability through recycling and reuse of household items-providing affordable furniture for the community while diverting from landfill. 

It is pleasing that the WIDT has been able to fund this project which reflect the key priorities for us moving forward, particularly in relation to utilising the fantastic renewable opportunities we have here in the Western Isles. Given the limited income stream currently available to WIDT, the Board decided to prioritise projects which meet more than one of its charitable objectives and which utilise or promote renewable energy initiatives.

The purpose of the Trust is to support the regeneration and development of the Outer Hebrides through disbursement of Community Benefit secured from the local deployment of Renewable Energy installations. This Community Benefit will come from a range of technologies, predominately onshore wind, offshore wind, wave and tidal. Over time and as Grid connectivity allows, WIDT will expand its activities to support community ownership of large scale Renewable Energy infrastructure with the objective of addressing Fuel Poverty through access to locally generated “green” electricity.

It is very good news that Cothrom have now made a start on their project and we share their enthusiasm in anticipation of the building being open for staff and learners in late December


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£4m Additional Capital Spend

Very welcome news that the Comhairle is to invest £4m in additional capital spending in the Outer Hebrides over the next two years, including £1m for Education and £800k for road improvements.

Other projects include £240k for new library vans, £240k for coast protection works at Craigston and South Ford and £130k for culvert repairs on the access road to the newly renovated Lews Castle. We have also allocated £340k for the replacement of Sport and Health equipment on the basis that the old equipment will be made available to communities. £660k has been set aside as match funding for economic development or housing projects.

The allocation of funding follows a review of the Comhairle’s Capital programme with money available from additional capital grant and a reallocation of funding for existing capital projects.

In the current financially challenging times it is vital that we use the money for capital projects in a way that provides maximum benefit for our communities. These schemes deliver on priorities whilst providing a boost to employment and improved infrastructure in the Islands.

The £1m for Education and Children’s Services capital works will be agreed in accordance with priorities agreed by the Comhairle. Road improvements will be prioritised following post winter inspections.


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Convention of the Highlands and Islands

We had very productive discussions with Scottish Government ministers and our counterparts from other councils and organizations as part of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands, held in the Stornoway Town Hall on Monday 7th March.

Digital connectivity, fuel poverty and Europe were some of the main topics on the agenda, amongst others. It was very encouraging that an independent report, published on Monday morning, stated that ‘Scotland’s island economies could benefit from up to £725M over the next 25 years from renewable projects.’ This is exactly what we have been saying for many many years now – Scotland’s islands have fantastic renewable opportunities, however, we need the interconnector to make the most of these opportunities and the sooner we get it; the sooner our communities, and indeed the country, can start seeing the economic benefits.

On the same day a letter was sent to Amber Rudd MP from Fergus Ewing, Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism, and the Leaders of Scotland’s 3 island authorities. In it, we referred to the delay in signing off on the State Aid application and the significant unrest that this has caused, particularly after it was stated last September that the process would take around two months to be concluded.  Secondly, we emphasised that “an announcement about the next Contract for Difference (CfD) auction to be held at the end of 2016 will be critical to the delivery of the Prime Minister’s commitment to support island renewables. It is essential that the auction supports the associated connections to all three island groups.” The letter was copied to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell.

The next meeting of the Convention will be in the Highlands in October and it was agreed that OFGEM and the National Grid be invited to attend that meeting to discuss the fuel poverty issues which, as we are all acutely aware, are a particularly significant challenge for the Western Isles.

The Scottish Government’s press release following Monday’s meeting stated:

“With appropriate investment in grid infrastructure and generating assets, renewable energy development on the islands could grow rapidly by the early 2020s.”

That is our vision for these islands and we will continue to make the case to both Governments over the coming months in order to see that vision come to fruition.

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