Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to offer £50,000 to encourage people to live in island communities has been criticised for “giving with one hand and taking away with the other”.
The SNP Government is being warned the cash offer could prove counter-productive by further inflating the local housing market, and pricing out other locals.
In Holyrood, it was also claimed it will cost “considerably less” for the government to simply abandon plans to centralise air traffic control jobs in the Highlands and Islands, keeping more than 100 families where they are.
We revealed in April that Nicola Sturgeon’s party would commit to offering 100 of the bonds to retain or attract young families to island communities facing depopulation.
A consultation has been held on the proposal in recent weeks.
However, former Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard used question time in Holyrood on Thursday to highlight what he believed were inconsistencies in government policy towards tackling depopulation.
He criticised plans to cut air traffic control jobs by the publicly-owned Highland and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL).
Mr Leonard said: “Doesn’t the Cabinet secretary accept, notwithstanding that some progress has been made in recent days, that if it dropped its plan to centralise air traffic control in the Highlands, the Scottish Government would keep more than 100 families on the islands, and it would cost considerably less?
“And that the bond will risk inflating island house prices, driving them up even further beyond the reach of young locals, so having the opposite effect to the one intended?
“Why is the government giving with one hand and taking away with the other?”
Mairi Gougeon, the rural affairs and islands secretary, said the bond was just one of a number of measures being considered by the government to tackle depopulation.
She also rejected any claim that the policy was a “bribe” or a “gimmick”.
Responding to Mr Leonard, she said: “That’s just not the case at all, and I’d suggest that if the member has particular issues there around HIAL, then he raise that with the transport minister, Graeme Dey.
“But I would say that that is why we are undertaking the process we are with the Islands Bond. We are consulting to make sure that this is a measure we get right when it is introduced.
This isn’t something that we’re doing in isolation.”
Rural affairs and islands secretary Mairi Gougeon
“But this of course can’t tackle depopulation in isolation. That’s why there is a whole host of other matters that are being considered.
“For example, the production of an action plan that we committed to in relation to rural and islands housing, which should go some way towards addressing the concerns that Mr Leonard has raised.
“So this isn’t something that we’re doing in isolation. We also have a population taskforce that has been established to consider across government, what we are doing to tackle a lot of these issues here.”