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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Scotland Bill

At the last hour, the Scottish and UK Governments reached agreement on the ‘financial framework’ around the Scotland Bill. This was a good result and importantly, from the Comhairle’s perspective, means there are now no impediments to the Bill going ahead which in turn clears the way for the Scottish Government to implement the Smith Commission recommendations in full. That includes the onward devolution of Crown Estate powers and revenues to coastal communities such as the Outer Hebrides.

 

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NHS Western Isles Macmillan nurses – Cancer Team of the Year UK

Huge congratulations to the NHS Western Isles Macmillan nurses who won the title of Cancer Team of the Year UK at a ceremony in London on Thursday evening.

They were the only team from Scotland to be shortlisted in the Quality in Care Oncology Awards and were put forward by their manager, Gill Chadwick.

This demonstrates the hard work and dedication of the team and I am delighted that this has been recognised at a national level.

The work of Macmillan has been of enormous benefit to cancer suffers throughout the islands at what can be a very difficult and challenging time.

Well done to them all.

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Budget

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has set its budget for 2016/17 with £1.439m amount of service savings.

The Comhairle was obliged to make the service savings as part of an overall package of £8.5m of savings because of a reduction in settlement funding of 4.5%.

A series of proposals were put forward for savings and consulted widely on across the Islands. A number of proposals have now been reconfigured in the budget which I put forward and which was seconded by Convener, Norman A MacDonald.

This has undoubtedly been a difficult process for the Comhairle and our communities. Following extensive consultation we have listened carefully to our communities and their priorities – I believe that this has been reflected in the outcome of the Comhairle’s budget. This has been challenging and will continue to be in the foreseeable future.

Thanks to all who took part in the budget consultation process.

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Emergency Towing Vessel

I welcome the announcement by Mr Robert Goodwill MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) that the contract for the Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) based in Orkney is to be extended for six months.

However the Comhairle has repeatedly called for a second ETV to cover the north west coast of Scotland as existed up until 2011.

Clearly the Government recognises that there is an issue of safety and a risk to the environment and it is to be welcomed that they are extending the current contract which for the ETV based in the Northern isles. However the Minister has also recognised that there is an issue in the sailing time needed to reach the waters around the Western Isles which needs to be addressed. The provision of a second ETV would address that issue

I, along with the Leaders of Orkney and Shetlands Islands Councils, raised this issue with Scottish Government Transport Minister Derek Mackay at a meeting in Shetland on Monday (22nd Feb).

The Transport Minister is fully supportive of the Islands’ Councils’ case that the UK Government should restore the second ETV to help protect the environment and increase the safety of maritime users in Scottish waters.

 

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Facebook Session on the Budget

I was delighted that so many people took part in our Facebook session to discuss the budget and the difficult choices we are facing. Over 100 people took part which is considerably more per head of population than other local authority areas which have conducted similar events. It really is a useful way of engaging though hard work – particularly for a Friday night!

One of the questions which arose during the session and which I have heard being discussed in the community is why the Comhairle doesn’t increase Council tax to prevent cuts in services having to be made. The trouble for the Comhairle, and other local authorities is that there is a financial penalty – in the region of over £300k – imposed on Councils which do not maintain the Council tax freeze. Plus we would need the money to cover the costs of the services so we would be looking at a significant increase in Council tax. Therefore under the current circumstances the Comhairle does not consider that taking money out of people’s pockets in the Western isles and it going to Edinburgh would be a sensible move.

What the Comhairle and COSLA did lobby for was for the Scottish Government to use the power it has to raise income tax by a penny in the pound with the additional money generated, around £470m, going to local government services. This lobbying has proved unsuccessful for this year but it is a theme I am sure local government will return to next year.

 

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Island Air Services

There is deep concern in the community at the air services currently being provided for the Islands. There is a problem in the number of delays and cancellations being experienced and there needs to be a long term strategy to provide improved services. The first meeting of the Transport Forum, which resulted from the Our Islands Our Future campaign, takes place next week where we can examine these issues and look at a way forward. One of the options which would be worth exploring would be whether Island Councils can be more involved in running air services.

 

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