Scotland's rural and island communities are a significant part of our nation, culture and economy and there is no doubt rural Scotland is a fantastic place to live, work and do business.
Just over £32 billion was produced in the rural regions of Scotland in 2011, approximately 30% of output from the Scottish economy.
But because many of the functions and services necessary for rural communities and businesses are administered in Westminster, insufficient weight is given to the needs of rural Scotland. As a direct result, people who live outside of our urban centres are often poorly served by the market when it comes to delivery of the services vital to modern society.
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Full fiscal flexibility would give an independent Scotland greater freedom to tailor capital investment decisions to wider policy objectives, including the Scottish Government's commitment to connecting communities and developing local and national economies.
Gaining control over postal services, rural broadband and mobile telecoms licencing, and the ability to introduce a fuel-duty regulator, would all give the Government of an independent Scotland ways to better deliver the economic opportunities everybody should expect.
Rising energy bills are also a huge concern for this Government, and fuel poverty is an absolute scandal in an energy-rich country. Its main driver is high energy prices, but by working in partnership with others we aim to reduce the number of people living in fuel poverty in Scotland as much as possible by November 2016. However, with full control over the welfare system and the regulation of energy companies, an independent Scotland could do so much more to address this issue.
We have also set up the Island Areas Working Group which is looking at the potential for further devolution of powers for Scotland's islands and the opportunities independence could open up for island communities, including energy, renewables, transport and the Crown Estate.
Fuel poverty/energy efficiency
OUR main way of tackling fuel poverty is to improve energy efficiency of the home. More than 400,000 Scottish homes benefited from cavity-wall and loft insulation in the four years to the end of 2012. Through our Home Energy Efficiency Programmes we have given £55 million to local councils to make sure homes in their areas are warmer, more environmentally friendly and easier and cheaper to heat. This is targeted at fuel-poor households and is being used for the installation of energy-efficiency measures such as solid wall, cavity and loft insulation.
The Scottish Government is committed to the provision of affordable housing across Scotland, using innovative approaches to maximise investment.
Funding for 30,000 affordable homes over the lifetime of the parliament is on track. In the four years from April 2012 to March 2016, we plan to invest £1.3bn in affordable housing.
We fully recognise rural housing provision needs specific solutions and Resource Planning Assumptions have been allocated to each local authority area to provide affordable housing with local partners. Higher subsidy levels are available in rural areas.
We have also provided £4m of loans to the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust for a "Rural Rent to Buy Pilot Scheme" in the Highlands aimed at supporting first-time buyers on modest incomes to fund deposits on new homes while stimulating the affordable housing market. And we have the Croft House Grant Scheme which provides grant assistance for the construction or improvement of croft housing.
The Scottish Government is currently leading the rollout of the £410m Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband partnership. Engineers are currently working to enable fibre broadband connections to 30,000 properties in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders, Dundee, Fife, Stirling, Perth and Kinross, Angus, and both South and East Ayrshire by summer 2014.
This programme will lay the foundations of a world-class digital Scotland by extending fibre broadband access to remote and rural parts of Scotland that would not otherwise be served. This will be a key factor in ensuring Scotland's long-term economic prosperity.
The Scottish Government continues to support healthy population growth by working closely with organisations including Argyll and Bute Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to promote sustainable economic growth in Argyll and Bute. That helps to ensure thriving communities that will retain and attract people.
Improving economic opportunities is critical to boosting the population. In a range of areas in the Highlands and Islands, the rollout of digital connectivity - an ongoing priority for the Government - has boosted business prospects significantly, as have other measures that we have taken, such as the small business bonus scheme, used extensively across Argyll and Bute.
We are focused on ensuring that the infrastructure in rural Scotland is appropriate to attract businesses and to support and encourage population growth.