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A fair wind for island councils

THERE is a delicious whiff of Whisky Galore about the campaign by Scotland's three island councils for greater autonomy.

In Compton MacKenzie's classic wartime tale, islanders ran rings around the authorities' attempts to recover a shipwrecked cargo of liquor.

Now, in their real-life campaign to take greater control of natural resources and greater responsibility for transport and other policies, the leaders of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are doing the same.

The launch of their joint Our Islands – Our Future initiative was timed to perfection, at the start of a referendum campaign which will almost certainly lead to constitutional change of some sort. What better opportunity could there be to play Nationalist off against Unionist and, hopefully, get something in writing before voters go to the polls on September 18 next year? So far the plan is working perfectly, overcoming both the SNP's instinctive impulse to centralise rather than devolve powers, and the pro-UK parties' general reluctance to tinker with the constitutional landscape.

Yesterday, following a meeting of his Cabinet in Shetland, Alex Salmond unveiled the portentously-titled Lerwick Declaration signalling a willingness to hand the councils more powers if Scotland becomes independent. A ministerial working group, chaired by Local Government Minister Derek Mackay, will consider the islanders' pitch but after the First Minister's comments ("We support subsidiarity and local decision making") there would be grounds for serious complaint if the new talking shop turns out merely to be a mechanism for catapulting the issue into the long grass. The SNP's offer will be dependent on Scotland becoming independent, though only a few of the local authorities' demands (for control of Crown Estate shoreline revenues, for example) are outwith the Scottish Government's gift.

The pro-UK parties challenged Ministers to act immediately if they were really committed to handing powers down from Holyrood. Their centralising tendencies suggested the opposite, or so opposition MSPs claimed.

For their part, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already gone a long way to accommodating the islands' demands in their own plans for the future of devolution, drawn up largely in response to the referendum debate. The Lib Dems – whose MSPs Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur represent Shetland and Orkney respectively – have long championed greater autonomy for the Northern Isles. Labour's devolution commission, meanwhile, specifically backed handing control of Crown Estates revenues direct to local authorities rather than Holyrood. The Tories' position is less clear, though yesterday they insisted they also supported devolving more decision making to councils.

Their plans, however, will not be put to voters until the 2015 Westminster election, if Scots vote No to independence. It would be premature for the island councils to raise a celebratory dram just yet but the wind is blowing in their direction, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

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Local government

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