Economies of the UK Islands — [Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:16 am on 9th May 2018.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 10:16 am, 9th May 2018

As I said, I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration, because we all want to fight for our constituents and secure for them whatever advantages we can as soon as possible. He will also remember that I said that the Isle of Arran got RET in 2014. From what he said, that was a considerable distance behind the first roll-out. The fact is that the roll-out is a process and a programme. Obviously, the islands that are not at the front of the queue will be frustrated and impatient, as they should be. The fact is that RET—as I suppose his frustration suggests—is a huge benefit to island communities, and any island would be mad not to want to secure those advantages as soon as could be arranged.

The object of road equivalent tariff is to increase demand for ferry services by making ferry travel much more affordable and more accessible, to increase tourism and to enhance the local and wider national economy. That is why the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and I are so excited about it. In order to be as helpful to the Minister as I can—I always try to be helpful to my colleagues—I intend to paint a brief picture to show him the positive impact that road equivalent tariff can have, in case it is something that he wants to consider rolling out in the rest of the UK. It helps to offset some, though not all, of the challenges that are faced by island communities, which we have heard a wee bit about today.

In the case of Arran routes, such as the Brodick to Ardrossan route and the route between Claonaig and Lochranza, stimulation of the economy has certainly been achieved. Arran’s economy—if you can believe this, Mr Rosindell—has grown by 10%, which is a faster rate of growth even than China. That is something to prize, and it can perhaps be best explained by the price of the Ardrossan to Brodick route tumbling by a massive 46% for foot passengers, with a 64% reduction for cars being transported on that route. That comes at a cost of a mere £2.4 million a year to the Scottish Government.

I will set out the advantages that RET has brought in practical terms to the island. Analysis carried out by Transport Scotland has concluded that RET has significantly increased resident ferry travel across all journey purposes, and increased the demand for ferry services. In addition, the number of tourists has increased substantially, with the season extended from Easter and peak summer to the equivalent of the whole summer timetable. RET has enhanced the island-hopping tourist market with neighbouring islands. The Scottish Government are investing £1.8 million a year to support RET for the route between Cumbrae and Bute.

We know that job markets on islands can be challenging and fragile—we have heard a bit about that today. For Arran businesses, the impact of RET has been extremely positive, with increases cited in footfall and turnover. The tourism sector has accrued the greatest benefits, with hotels, guest houses, campsites, golf courses and visitor attractions all highlighting the positive impact of RET.

Interestingly, RET has been particularly beneficial to the more remote areas of the island of Arran, particularly on the west coast. That is surely down to the increased numbers of visitors availing themselves of the opportunity to bring their cars on to the island at a much reduced cost, and exploring the farther reaches of the island, beyond Brodick and Lamlash. It is heartening to see a new £10 million distillery on Arran, and major expansion of the Auchrannie hotel and spa, which will enhance any visitor experience. RET has also allowed those who live outwith the island to take up jobs that have been challenging to fill, as students or seasonal workers can sometimes fill them. There is even a scarcity of staff to fill the increasing demand for workers in the hospitality industry, demonstrating the success of RET for the island.

Of course, there is no denying that RET has posed challenges for some businesses in the retail sector, because they are becoming increasingly exposed to competition with the mainland. However, studies show that the overwhelming consensus is that there has been a very positive impact on the island in terms of social, cultural and economic opportunities.

We know that connectivity is key, and that is very true of broadband connectivity for our islands. The Arran Economic Group reported last year that, based on cabinet installations, more than 90% of households and businesses now have access to superfast broadband, with take-up on Arran and Cumbrae at around 41%. There have been particular issues with the area of Machrie on Arran, but progress is being made.

We have heard some remarks about connectivity, regarding broadband and mobile phone signals. It is true that that is an issue, but as I always say to constituents when they raise such matters with me, the connectivity of broadband and mobile signal on this very estate sometimes compares to some of the difficulties that people have on the island of Arran and other outlying areas in our coastal communities. The broadband and mobile phone signal on this estate is sometimes, as you will be aware, Mr Rosindell, absolutely shocking. The fact that we have that problem in the middle of London, in the middle of the parliamentary estate, shows the scale of the challenges that our island communities face.

Arran also suffers from the lack of affordable housing. That is a challenge for future economic growth on the island, since it has an impact on the working-age population. One barrier is that 22% of homes on Arran are second homes, with a further 59 empty homes identified. We need to find ways of offsetting those issues, alongside plans to build new affordable homes on Arran. The Scottish Government have helped to fund 96 new homes in partnership working. That is a start, but clearly there is much more work to be done. The Scottish Government are investing £2.2 million on Cumbrae for amenity housing, but there is no room for complacency. Affordable housing remains a big challenge.

We know that there are pressures on Scotland’s budget. I was quite bewildered by the comments made by Mr Seely. He is standing up for his constituents, which is exactly what he is supposed to do, but I flinched when he called the Barnett formula “generous”, given that Scotland’s resource budget was cut by £211 million this year and will be cut by £538 million next year. I am sure that he wants more resources for the Isle of Wight, but I do not think that describing the Barnett formula as generous is the way to do that.