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Scottish Affairs Committee Visits the isle of lewis

On Monday 18 February 2019 the Scottish Affairs Committee visited the Isle of Lewis, as part of our inquiry into The future of Scottish Agriculture post-Brexit, to hear from local crofters and residents of the island.

We wanted to see, first hand, the issues facing farmers in remote Island communities in Scotland.

Watch our Chair talk about why we came to the Isle of Lewis

In the morning we held a roundtable with crofters to hear about the issues many of them face. We discussed the challenges of raising livestock in such a harsh environment; the importance of crofting for environment and land management on this island, the difficulties crofters faced accessing financial support and in ability of the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme to take account of the specific needs of crofters.

After the roundtable we went on a tour around a number of croft on the west coast of the Island.

Our Members found the visits to crofts extremely valuable. Here are some of their reactions to the tour

Watch our Chair talk more about what the Committee learnt during the visit.

In the evening we held a meeting in Stornoway town hall to hear from residents about what they saw as the key issues facing island communities.

Here are some of the main topics that were discussed...

Economic development, jobs and population

Residents felt there was a need for improved infrastructure and facilities on the island in order to properly exploit the economic opportunities, particularly from tourism. We heard concerns that the island needed increased ferry crossings to cope with demand but also increased accommodation and services to boost the local economy. It was raised that the island could benefit from deep water facilities to cater to larger cruise ships which currently cannot serve the Isle of Lewis.

We heard that many young people moved away from the island to find employment and there was a demand for more opportunities to encourage young people and young families to stay. Losing a small number of jobs had a much greater impact on island communities than similar loses would have on the mainland. Attendees argued that the island’s geographical location should not be ‘a barrier to business’ and they would like to see more companies and governmental agencies coming to the island to bring employment opportunities. It was felt that there was currently limited career progression and development opportunities on the island.

Depopulation was a major concern; particularly its impact on the sustainability of small communities and local services. One attendee gave an example of his own village where 17 out of 52 houses were lying empty. The reduction in population is resulting in the closure of schools meaning families have long journeys to their nearest school.

While there was a general consensus that a lack of economic opportunities was a major cause, there was a debate over whether reduced shop and facilities opening on Sunday was also a factor. Some felt that a “one-day weekend” encouraged young people and families to move to the mainland. However, others felt that the traditional Sunday-closing was an important part of the island’s heritage and draw.

The Committee has looked at the impact of immigration on Scotland’s population in its reports into Immigration and Scotland.

Infrastructure and connectivity

Many residents felt island infrastructure was falling behind progress on the mainland with a large proportion of properties not having access to consistent fibre optic broadband, and in some cases no broadband at all. This lack of connectivity included mobile phone signals with some mobile providers unable to provide a stable connection across the island. The Committee looked into theses issues in its report on Digital Connectivity in Scotland which made a number of recommendations to increase improved access to broadband.

Some residents felt Lewis needed to improve its ferry infrastructure with only one ferry currently operating from Stornoway to the mainland, and the need for more investment in the road network on the island. There was interest in the proposal for an Island Deal, based on the city region deal in other parts of Scotland, as a way in which both the UK and Scottish Government could invest in improving the island's infrastructure. The Committee has previously looked at City Region Deals, and will continue to focus on this issue when it next takes evidence from the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Concerns were also raised about delivery charges, with some residents feeling that couriers were discriminating against islands, with charges as high as £18.60 per delivery in some cases and delivery times on average 3 days later for islands than other parts of Scotland. The Committee has also held a one-off session on delivery charges in Scotland, taking evidence from online retailers and delivery companies.

Energy

The island had benefited greatly from community owned energy production, particularly in wind energy, which was seen as an excellent example of an investment that kept money and jobs in the local economy. It was felt that the island had potential to produce more renewable energy particularly from wave and tidal power, and that pursuing these schemes could encourage more young people to stay, or move to, the island.

However, for the island to export more energy there would need to be investment in a new interconnector to link renewable energy projects with the mainland electricity grid. Some residents report that the failure to invest in the interconnecter had led to the island losing opportunities to host more renewable energy projects. . In the last parliament the Committee looked at Government support for renewable energy generation in Scotland in its Report on the renewable energy sector.

More support was needed to address fuel poverty and to help make homes on the island more energy efficient by improving insulation. There was a particular challenge with the reliance on electric storage heaters which were regarded as a particularly expensive way of heating a property.

Brexit

The residents that chose to speak about Brexit felt that the process had been too drawn out and were concerned that there was still a lack of clarity about the final outcome. The island had benefited from EU funding, and there were concerns about whether these funding streams would be replaced. There was little awareness about the Government’s proposed “Shared Prosperity Fund” which might replace current EU funding.

There were also concerns about the impact Brexit would have on key sectors of the local economy; particularly tourism and fisheries.

On tourism, there were concerns about the ability to recruit people to work in the tourism sector under the new immigration scheme. There were also concerns about whether the number of tourists would decrease after Brexit, either due to the new immigration scheme or because the UK was seen as less welcoming.

On fisheries, there was also concern about the recruitment of foreign workers, this time to work in food processes or to crew fishing boats. There were also concerns about the impact that any new tariffs or trade barriers could have on the export of live sea food.The Committee has looked in detail at the potential impact of trade barriers in Scotland in its inquiry into Scotland's trade priorities, which will be concluding shortly.

Agriculture and Crofting

Residents highlighted the importance of crofting as the lifeblood of island communities in Scotland, supporting over 17,000 jobs across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and providing important cultural, social and environmental benefits. However, there was concern that post-Brexit tariffs between the UK & EU could pose a threat to the sector’s sheep and cattle trade, with EU third country tariffs averaging 47% for certain types of lamb and 50% for beef.

Concern was also raised about the long-term supply of crofters on the island, with residents concerned about the lack of new entrants in the sector. This was put down to three reasons; schools not promoting crofting to students as a form of future employment, the high-cost of purchasing and managing croft tenancies and the lack of agricultural support funding for less favoured areas. There was a feeling amongst some residents that these concerns were not priorities for both the UK & Scottish Governments, with mainland farmers being given preferential treatment over island crofters.

Suggestions were made that these issues could be addressed through an independent crofting review which could look at all aspects of crofting and make recommendations to government on steps which could be taken to support crofters. There were also calls for the creation of a Croft housing scheme which could provide grants to crofters to help them purchase or build their own house near their croft.

What happens next?

The future of Scottish agriculture post-Brexit inquiry

We will be continuing our inquiry into The future of Scottish agriculture post-Brexit. You can follow our progress by clicking on the link to our inquiry page below

We will also use the suggestions made by crofters and residents to help support our future work and inquiries. You can keep up to date on the Committee work on our website or by following us on twitter @CommonsScotAffs.

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