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It is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate Alan Mak on securing this debate and bringing the issue to the House to chew over—it is very important. The contributions from Mr Seely, Mr Carmichael and Bill Grant indicate the complexity, diversity and multifaceted aspects that this issue throws up. It must be seen in the context of the type of islands that we have in this country—from the Isle of Wight, with its 140,000-odd population, right through to some of the inhabited Scottish islands, which have perhaps five or six inhabitants. It is not quite as simple as saying that an island is an island is an island.
There is also the diversity of economic activities on our islands. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock talked about windsurfing, and I also got the impression that he has tasted whisky. I look forward to hearing his experiences of windsurfing—if not seeing the photographs—next time we debate.
As the hon. Member for Havant mentioned, one of the greatest problems faced by the economies of UK islands is poor infrastructure. The rising cost of transport for people who live on UK islands clearly has a knock-on effect on jobs, suppliers and the population, as many young adults are choosing to leave their island homes in favour of finding work in the rest of the country.
Another challenge is the higher levels of unemployment; the unemployment rate on many islands is well above the national average. The Isle of Sheppey’s unemployment rate stands at 2.6%, while those on the Scottish islands of Arran and Bute are 3.8% and 4.1% respectively. As has been discussed, many islands are tourist destinations, which means that a large amount of the work is seasonal. In the past, that might have been less of a challenge, but with weather becoming increasingly unpredictable due to global warming, it is much harder for those economies to plan and scale. It is not necessarily a major factor at this point, but it is a factor. In relation to the grouse—I mean gross, though grouse is very appropriate for Scotland—the gross household disposable income on UK islands is lower for workers in the Orkney Islands, the Isle of Wight, the Western Isles and Anglesey than for those in much of the rest of the United Kingdom.
Given the increasingly technological nature of advanced economies, the hon. Members for Isle of Wight and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) have quite rightly pointed out the vast differences in broadband connectivity and speeds between parts of the UK and the islands. That has a huge impact on island economies, particularly on the number of small businesses that operate remotely. Naturally, many UK island economies suffer from having less resources, which hon. Members have mentioned, and have a heavy reliance on a limited number of supply chains, which leads to the UK’s island populations paying more for goods and services. When combined with lower-than-average incomes, higher costs of household essentials are a key factor in driving poverty levels.
All those issues have been outlined with clarity by Members from across the House. We have had the analysis of the symptoms, but I am not sure we have had the practical things we can all do to help those communities—I hope the Minister will address that. It falls on me, as Opposition spokesperson, to refer to the elephant in the room: eight years of austerity. Many areas have suffered disproportionately from that because of the lack of investment in those communities, where they have struggled.
Let me take a couple of examples. I understand that Canvey Island has an independence party, with eight or nine councillors. I am not quite sure whether they are going to get to a referendum—but perhaps we should not go there, or talk about customs unions or single markets, as I am sure we have enough trouble with that at the moment. Canvey Island sits in the borough of Castle Point in Essex, a local authority that has seen nearly £1 million of Government grant disappear. Reports now suggest that Castle Point will be running a million-pound deficit in three years’ time.
Perhaps we should turn to Hayling Island, which the hon. Member for Havant mentioned and knows well, as it is in his constituency and covered by Havant Borough Council. A couple of months ago, his local paper, the Portsmouth News, reported that the local authority had been forced to increase council tax by the maximum of 3%. The local population will have to pay that—a population that, as the hon. Gentleman said, are already stressing and straining. Why might a Conservative council feel the need to increase taxes on the good people of Havant and the island of Hayling? It faces a £1.2 million reduction in central Government support as a direct result of the Government’s policies. There is no way to duck that particular issue. The council leader, when describing the measures being taken to try to rescue some services said,
“We didn’t want to go down this route but we had no option”.
The council faces a significant reduction in central Government funding through the revenue support grant, which in 2016-17 was £1.4 million, is now £290,000 and from 2019-20 will be zero. That is a factor in the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.
These are not isolated examples. If we consider any of the local authorities of the islands mentioned in this debate, the story is the same—deep and pernicious cuts that threaten the very existence of some of them.