David Harris – 1985 Speech on the Isles of Scilly

Below is the text of the speech made by David Harris, the then Conservative MP for St. Ives, in the House of Commons on 9 July 1985.

Even at 3 o’clock in the morning I warmly welcome the opportunity of raising the problems facing one of the most beautiful parts of the country, the Isles of Scilly. In doing so, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for agreeing to reply to this debate, because it has had a change of title. My original intention had been to raise the problem of electricity charges on the Isles of Scilly, but because of a pending court case it was thought that this might be sub judice. With the Minister’s agreement I have now brought forward the debate on the general problems of the Isles of Scilly.

Those problems are deep-seated and long-standing. To many holidaymakers enjoying themselves in the Isles of Scilly these islands must seem like paradise, but they are a paradise with real problems. I hope to touch on some of those problems straight away, but before doing so perhaps I could call in aid no less a person than HRH Prince Charles the Duke of Cornwall, who last year wrote a foreword to a very comprehensive study carried out by Graham Moss Associates into the economy and the development of those isles. In his foreword Prince Charles pointed out that the islands have a unique environment which is enjoyed by many thousands of people each year. He went on to say:

“However, in recent years, economic pressures have become more intense and the Islands’ economy has become more fragile.”

These islands, five of which are inhabited with a population of just under 2,000, are some 30 miles west of Land’s End and they rejoice, perhaps quite rightly to an extent, in the title “the fortunate islands”. But, as I have said, there are real and long-standing problems. The cost of living on the islands is appreciably higher than on the mainland in many regards. It was calculated last year, in the Graham Moss report to which I have referred, that probably the cost of living on Scilly is 10 per cent. to 35 per cent. Higher than on the mainland. Even if one excludes housing costs, which are exceptionally high, the cost of living is probably 8 per cent. to 12 per cent. higher than on the mainland. This extra cost springs in part from the difficulties of transportation. Practically everything consumed on the island has to be brought, normally on the ferry, from Penzance, some 40 miles away, or by helicopter; and there is now a Skyvan service to the islands.

Similarly, all the produce grown, the flowers and the early potatoes, has to be transported to the mainland. The difficulties are compounded if one happens to live on one of the four off-islands, because normally there is that extra leg of a journey from the main island, St. Mary’s, to the off islands. It is not a question only of freight. It is also a question of passengers. This is a considerable burden on holiday trade because fares are a very big component of any holiday on the Isles of Scilly and also for islanders themselves when they go to the mainland.

Perhaps I should point out that the Government’s recent changes in student travel grant arrangements particularly hit the islanders and, whereas a £100 grant might be quite reasonable for somebody living on the mainland fairly near ​ to his university, for someone who has to travel from the Isles of Scilly that initial leg of the journey before he gets to the mainland is very expensive.
I must not stray too deeply into the vexed question of electricity. However, the islanders have had a 14 per cent. increase in electricity charges this year, whereas the other consumers of the South-West electricity board, on the mainland, have had an increase of under 7 per cent. The charges for electricity on the islands are 37 per cent. higher than on the mainland.

Housing is another very big item of expenditure, and it is difficult to build houses on the islands. The sites and the water and other services are not available, and any properties that become vacant are immediately snapped up for holiday homes or, in some cases, for people coming from the mainland to live. We all know that a distinguished former Member and former Prime Minister lives for part of his time on the island, and is welcome there. He has on many occasions spoken up for the islanders.

Water is a big problem on the island, as is refuse disposal, which has been a major headache over several years. The difficulties continually impinge on the two main industries that sustain the economy of Scilly — tourism and horticulture. I would hate to give the impression that all is gloom. When some two years ago I had the honour to become the Member for St. Ives—my constituency includes these islands — I was worried about their economy. There has been a general upturn in the tourist trade. This year, as well, growers have done reasonably well with their daffodils and potatoes. The islands have considerable strengths. They have a versatile and talented population. I am always struck by the amount of talent — particularly among the young people who have come back to Scilly after a spell on the mainland — by their enterprise, and the way in which they are tackling the problems of the economy.

The Island Council has recently been restructured and an environmental trust has been set up, partly due to Prince Charles’s interest in the matter, and there is the project for the extension of electricity to the off-islands, which is being carried out now. That is perhaps one of the biggest developments in the history of Scilly. It has given some uplift to the morale of the islanders.
However, the problems have been there for many years. It would be wrong to say that everything is all right with Scilly, and we need do nothing more. That is rather the traditional approach of successive Governments. They have rather waited for a crisis to hit the islands—be it replacement of the Scillonian, the ferry that linked the mainland to the islands or, quite recently, the threat of the possible closure, for financial reasons, of the islands’ airport.

When these crises have arisen, the Government have normally responded, although they may have taken some time to do it. The time has come to try to get away from this rather piecemeal approach to dealing with these deep-seated problems.

What really rankles among my constituents on the islands is the difference between the policy that is handed out to them and that for their counterparts in the Scottish islands. For example, the ferry services to the Scottish islands are heavily subsidised from Government funds.

On electricity charges, the Scottish islanders are in the happy position of paying the same tariff as the consumers on the mainland. Here is the big difference between the ​ treatment given to the Scottish islanders and the treatment which the islanders of Scilly receive. That is grossly unfair to the islanders I represent. I have just been refreshing my memory by looking back through Hansard while we were discussing this year’s Finance Bill. In the 1953 Finance Bill the Conservative Government in which Mr. Rab Butler was Chancellor decided that in future income tax should be paid by the islanders. They had escaped it up to that point. The islanders were subsequently made to pay excise licence duty and road fund licence duty.

In recent years the Government have argued that the islanders must be treated in the same way as everyone else in the United Kingdom. My complaint is that in the matters of transport and electricity they are not being treated in exactly the same way as the rest of us who live in the United Kingdom. That is unfair and I hope the Government will direct their attention to those problems.

I can understand the reluctance of the Government to give operating subsidies, be they for a ferry service or for electricity. At the moment there is a subsidy towards electricity, although it is paid for by consumers in the area of the south western electricity board on the mainland. I can understand the Government’s reluctance to go down the path of operating subsidies, but if they are not going to go down that path, then they should give some other compensating payments to the islanders. To a certain extent they do, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister will say something about rate support grant. I would be the first to acknowledge that the islanders have been treated quite well in that respect. But there is a case for doing more.
One imaginative idea which has been put forward is that the islands should be made a duty-free zone. That would certainly help the tourist trade, but there are other ways of helping the islands. For example, the very energetic branch of the National Farmers’ Union on the island put forward and pressed for a long time a shopping list of measures which would give the island’s growers some real benefit from their recently won status as a less favoured area under European Community policies. I hope the Agriculture Ministers will look at that in detail.

A programme has been drawn up with the European Community in connection with capital and other development projects using largely European funds. The trouble here is that the Government have shown a marked reluctance—I must say this—to provide their share of the finance needed to carry out integrated development operations. I hope that the Government will have a serious look at this matter because from my past experience as a Euro MP for Cornwall and Plymouth, when I was deeply involved in this matter in the early stages, I know that the Commission is eager to do something along those lines for the islands.

Some years ago, I arranged to take the director for regional policy from the Commission in Brussels to the islands. He saw the problems for himself, and the Commission is very receptive to the idea of a development programme for the islands for which the Commission of the European Community would probably provide over 50 per cent. of the necessary finance.

A considerable amount of work needs to be done, particularly on water supplies and the quays for the off-islands to allow inter-island launches to get to the off-islands much more easily than at present. A range of imaginative proposals were included in the report to which I referred earlier.

My plea is that the Government should take a hard look at Scilly and not wait for the next crisis, which could come any day. We must try to get the economy of the islands on a much sounder basis. Prince Charles said in the foreward that I mentioned earlier that he hoped that it would be possible for the islands to move towards a more secure and prosperous future. That is certainly my wish.