SNP ministers have scrapped a manifesto plan to give families £50,000 to move to islands with falling populations after a backlash from locals.

The Scottish Government today announced it had abandoned its Islands Bond scheme after a consultation found strong opposition in island communities. 

Some islanders described it as a "sticking plaster" or "gimmick".

Those in favour were “largely non-islanders”, the Government said. 

Some islanders said the idea was "wrong in principle", regarding it as a "short-term fix for a long-term problem" which could split communities.

“The potential for divisive impacts on communities and community cohesion was also raised as a key concern – mainly by island respondents,” the consultation analysis reported. 

The idea, which had previously been branded a “bribe” by critics, was included in the 2021 SNP manifesto for Holyrood.

It said: “To help stem depopulation, we will establish an Islands Bond – offering 100 bonds of up to £50,000 to young people and families to stay in or to move to islands currently threatened by depopulation.

"The bonds will support people to buy homes, start businesses and otherwise make their lives for the long term in these communities.”

But existing islanders “raised concerns about the proposed approach and whether it would achieve the objective of reversing population decline”.

Rural Affairs and Islands Secretary Mairi Gougeon, who had defended the policy at Holyrood, said: “I would like to thank everyone who responded as part of the consultation process, and especially our island communities for their constructive feedback and suggestions. 

“It is directly because of the feedback from islanders that we are changing our approach.

“The Islands Bond was never intended to be a silver bullet to address our island population challenges. Rather, it was just one element of our wider work, across all Scottish Government, to support our island communities.

“We will continue to address the issue of depopulation on our islands with our National Islands Plan commitment to develop an Action Plan to address this issue, with a draft publication in 2023.

“The learnings and suggestions gathered through the Islands Bond consultation will be used to shape a range of Practical Policy Tests to inform this Action Plan.

“Additionally, we are investing £8.3 million this year to deliver the National Islands Plan and critical infrastructure projects based on local priorities.

“Consultation with communities who are directly impacted by the introduction of new policies or strategies is a crucial part of policy development. Taking the decision demonstrates our continued commitment to listen to island communities and ensure policy is delivered in collaboration with them, rather than to them.”

The Herald: Islands Secretary Mairi GougeonIslands Secretary Mairi Gougeon

The written consultation ran from August 2 to October 25 last year, and also involved 19 stakeholder engagement sessions and 12 on-island in-person events.

It attracted 1,654 responses, 1,615 from individuals and 29 from organisations.

Overall, 42 per cent of respondents lived on islands and 58% did not.

Among the individual respondents who lived on the islands, the largest proportions were from Lewis and Harris (29%), the Argyll Islands (22%) and Uist and Barra (13%).

The official analysis of the responses found islanders worried about an ageing population, young people and families moving away, and a lack of working age people for key jobs.

They blamed a lack of affordable housing, poor transport services and infrastructure, poor digital connectivity and utility connections, low wages, and a lack of childcare.

Non-island respondents were “often strongly in favour of the Islands Bond proposal, and many described the initiative very positively as a ‘great opportunity’, ‘a fantastic idea’, or an ‘amazing scheme’.”

However islanders were fairly evenly split on the Bond idea, and were more likely to query it. 

Sceptics suggested islanders themselves should get priority for cash awards.

The analysis said: “A wide range of disadvantages or potential disadvantages following the introduction of the Islands Bond were identified. 

“These disadvantages were raised most frequently by island respondents but were also raised, less often, by non-island respondents.

“Those who were strongly against the proposal thought that the concept of an Islands Bond was wrong in principle. 

“The reasons offered for this view included that (i) it was a short-term fix to a long-term problem and would not address the underlying causes of depopulation, (ii) £5m was far too small an investment to have any impact on the depopulation of the Scottish islands, (iii) it was a waste of taxpayers’ money, (iv) a cash incentive to individuals was a bad idea and would attract the ‘wrong people’, and (v) the scheme would be open to abuse. 

“These views were held mainly, but not exclusively, by island respondents. More generally, both island and non-island respondents questioned whether the proposals represented a strategic response to the question of island depopulation. 

“The potential for divisive impacts on communities and community cohesion was also raised as a key concern – mainly by island respondents.”

Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton said: “This ditched scheme, trumpeted in the SNP’s manifesto, turns out – like so many of their policies – to have been no more than an eye-catching gimmick.

“The moment it was properly examined it became clear that it was a half-baked, ill-thought-out waste of taxpayers’ money unpopular with most islanders.

“As many pointed out, it would have been a short-term fix that would do little to reverse the SNP Government’s longstanding neglect and underfunding of local services, particularly in rural areas.

“If the SNP genuinely wanted to address islanders’ priorities, it would have sorted out the ferries fiasco it created, and focus funding on the urgent cost of living crisis, education, health and jobs, rather than distractions like this.”  

Liberal Democrat Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said: "The Islands Bond was always an election gimmick. Rather than tackling the root causes of depopulation, it risked opening up divisions within our island communities.

"This ill-conceived idea was not the brainchild of Mairi Gougeon, but thankfully the Islands Minister has had the good sense to listen to the overwhelming feedback from islanders and drop the proposals.

"I have repeatedly argued that there are far better ways to build the resilience of our island communities, through investing in transport links, broadband and affordable housing.

"Indeed, I have previously proposed using some of the Island Bond funding to support the introduction of a third aircraft on Orkney's internal routes which would benefit a number of different islands.

"Mairi Gougeon deserves credit for ditching the unworkable Island Bond plan and I look forward to working the Minister on more realistic proposals that can deliver the objectives of supporting and sustaining our island communities."