5. To ask the Scottish Government what preparations it has made to support the rural economies of Scotland’s islands, in light of the anticipated impact of the omicron variant. (S6O-00612)
The Scottish Government continues to support our island economies and communities. We recognise the difficulties presented by our updated Covid-19 guidance, which has been put in place to protect public health. That is why, before Christmas, we announced our £375 million support package for businesses. That is in addition to our £30 million islands programme investment to support delivery of the national islands plan over the next five years.
This Government is also investing up to £50 million through the islands growth deal over the next 10 years.
Island economies are facing serious challenges as a result of Covid and its variants, and they have lost almost £20 million of funding following Brexit. That is reflected across all Scotland’s islands, where many residents feel abandoned and unable to afford housing and transport. Can the cabinet secretary outline whether the currently outdated assessment of the needs of islanders and the industries connected to island tourism will be reviewed in light of the now worsening impact of Covid?
I completely understand the issues that the member has identified, whether that is in relation to the impact of Covid-19 or that of Brexit, which she also highlighted. Housing was also touched on. We recognise the issues with that; it is a critical issue that I hear about repeatedly when I am engaging with different stakeholders and communities. We have the remote, rural and island housing action plan, which will be developed and which, hopefully, will alleviate some of the issues that are being experienced.
However, of course, we cannot just look at each of those issues in a silo; there are a number of different issues that we are looking to address. For those that relate to connectivity, there is the £580 million investment for ferry services over the next five years, and there is the investment through the islands programme. We hope that, together, those will have a positive impact for our island communities.
Clearly, supporting business has a key role to play in supporting island economies and communities. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that the planned funding is being delivered timeously?
We are working with local authorities. We also work closely with our enterprise agencies and other key partners to try to ensure that the additional funding that is coming forward reaches businesses as soon as possible. Work began before Christmas with a view to getting those payments issued at the earliest opportunity. All partners are clear that providing that funding to businesses that need it is an absolute priority.
Businesses on Arran are absolutely scunnered by the endless disruptions to services that are not caused by the weather, Covid or Brexit but are everything to do with mechanical failure and the fact that their new ferry has not yet arrived. Will any of those businesses be compensated for loss of revenue or income as a result of mechanical failure or unreliable vessels?
As I have said in previous responses today, ferry services are key to supporting the economic, social and cultural development of our island communities, and operators will ensure that, where possible and when it is safe to do so, lifeline services are provided to connect remote island and mainland communities, when opportunities arise. As I previously touched on, the Scottish Government announced on 4 February last year a £580 million five-year investment plan, as part of our infrastructure investment. That substantial funding will improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years, as part of our wider infrastructure investment.
Ferries are of crucial importance to Arran’s economy. So, too, are workers. The average house price of more than £272,000 puts houses beyond the reach of young families, and only 11 per cent of Arran’s housing is social rented housing. The Scottish Government allocated £2.38 million to North Ayrshire Council to build 34 council houses—£70,000 for each home. Given that 86 Arran homes—3 per cent—are lying empty, what further steps will the minister take to bring those properties back into use and to enable the construction of more affordable homes across Arran’s rapidly ageing communities?
As a Government, we have committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, with 70 per cent of those for social rent and at least 10 per cent in remote, rural and island locations. Planned investment in North Ayrshire Council over this parliamentary session is more than £81 million, which is an increase of £14 million on the previous session.
The member has talked about empty homes. Tackling that remains a key priority. The actions in “Housing to 2040” will help to ensure that those wasted resources are brought back into residential use. As I have touched on, we are also developing a remote, rural and island housing action plan to ensure that we meet the needs of those areas.
Before I call question 2, I alert members, including the questioner, Mark Ruskell, to the fact that the Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform, Màiri McAllan, was primed to answer it but is participating remotely and is having technical difficulties. Hence, the question will be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands. I call Mark Ruskell, who also joins us remotely.