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Concerns raised by Accounts Commission

Audit Scotland has expressed serious concerns about how Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNES) is delivering on its commitment to provide best value for the people of the Western Isles.


The verdict was delivered in the Accounts Commission’s Best Value Assurance Report, the latest in a series of similar assessments running between 2006 and 2014.

The Auditors described the enormous challenges the Comhairle faces, but expressed disappointment that the positive momentum and improvements reported in 2014 had not been maintained.

The Report recognised the enormity of the task ahead, stating: “The Comhairle faces complex challenges: the largest real terms funding decrease of Scottish local authorities; depopulation; poor housing availability; and the most severe fuel poverty in Scotland. This places significant pressures on recruiting staff, particularly in critical areas such as social care.’

The Report highlighted a failure of senior leadership, saying: “Given the significant financial challenges ahead for the Comhairle, we are therefore seriously concerned that we need to again underline the crucial need for elected members to fulfil their leadership responsibilities in providing clear coherent strategic priorities and direction and thus deliver planned savings and improvements.’ The Auditors went on to detail the requirement for suitable support, adding: “We also emphasise the need for members to be supported in their responsibilities by effective training and development, including on their equalities obligations.”

Audit Scotland commended the Comhairle as a strong advocate for the Western Isles, highlighting positive partnership working and good community relations, as well as sound performance in education, local economic support and its apprenticeship programme.

The Comhairle has said it welcomes the newly published report, accepts its recommendations and will be implementing an Action Plan.

A spokesperson for CNES said: “The Comhairle is pleased that there is acknowledgement of the many successful initiatives underway and our good practice in areas such as community engagement, supporting the local economy and, importantly, being a strong advocate for the Islands. Our good collaboration  with our partners to bring improvements to the Islands is fundamental to how we work and we welcome its recognition by Audit Scotland.

“The Comhairle knows well and fully accepts the challenges that it continues to face, particularly in the light of the financial situation facing local government.  The need to increase the pace of change and develop our policies and strategies for achieving improvement are heavily influenced by the challenges of finance, workforce and leadership capacity.  The risks associated with depopulation remains a concern for the Comhairle and we will continue to work with our partners to address these through all our strategic work.”

The Comhairle’s Leader Cllr Paul Steele said; “The Comhairle is committed to transparency and accountability in all we do and welcomes this report as an important contribution to that commitment. The report identifies many of the key strengths of the Comhairle and describes some of the challenges we face. We agree with Audit Scotland on the importance of clear and strategic policy, long term financial planning and the Comhairle calls on the Scottish Government, once again, to implement a multi-year settlement which will allow for greater security for Councils to plan and deliver improvements and change. We have campaigned vigorously against the cuts which all local authorities but particularly the Comhairle, have had to endure in recent years. No-one recognises more than the Comhairle the challenges of depopulation, providing social care and tackling fuel poverty. We note the findings of the Accounts Commission and remain committed to working for our communities in a challenging financial climate exacerbated by COVID and Brexit.”

William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “The Comhairle must urgently develop a prioritised action plan to address the serious issues it faces. It already has some of the elements it needs to make fundamental changes; it has an ambitious vision for the future and works well with communities and other partners. But without clear strategic direction and leadership from its councillors, supported effectively by officers, as well as crucial effective financial and capital planning, it remains uncertain whether the Comhairle can achieve the improvements it needs to make.”

The detailed audit work for the Report was undertaken before the local elections in May.

The full report is available to view on the Audit Scotland website.

£1m festival boost for local economy

The team behind the hugely popular Eilean Dorcha Festival (EDF) has published the findings of an independent Visitor Survey and Economic Impact Report, showcasing the value of the three day event – not only in terms of the sheer fun it delivered, but the hard cash it injected into the local economy.

The Report, carried out by MKA Economics in Stirling details the facts and figures that evidence the impressive headline figure of a £1m boost to the local economy:

• EDF attracted 4999 festival goers – 29% more than the previous pre-Covid event

• 49% of festival goers were local (2,229 people) , with the remaining 51% (2,549 people) visiting from the Scottish mainland and beyond

• The total average spend per visitor during the festival weekend was estimated to be in the region of £384.37, a 22% uplift on 2019 figures – providing a total spend of £991,290

• 65% of visitors cited EDF as an important or very important reason for their trip

• The event was supported by around £70,000 of public funding, with every £1 of public support generating a further £14 of economic value

The Report also highlights the great feedback the event generated, with 53% of festival goers describing EDF as ‘Excellent’, and 33% (34% in 2019) saying it was ‘Very Good’, giving an 86% satisfaction rate overall.

The most frequent answers to the survey question: ‘What would have made your stay even more enjoyable?’ referenced ‘better weather’ and ‘more reliable ferrries’.

Festival organiser Roddy MacKay was delighted with the results, saying: “We could see during the weekend that the festival was a big success, but we have been blown away by the economic findings.

“The study demonstrates the power communities have when they pull together to organise an event that helps build a positive, ambitious future, and that was particularly relevant this year after a last-minute hitch when the tent suppliers pulled out.

Suddenly we had to rearrange the full event from indoor to outdoor at the last minute. A call went out for assistance, and the community came to the rescue in their droves. It meant a change of stage, sound, lighting, a new event safety plan, everything. It effectively meant a completely new event had to be drawn up in a week but, somehow, we managed to pull it off and people clearly enjoyed themselves.”

“We are very proud that, for just a £10 weekend ticket, children of primary school age can enjoy not just the music, but a variety of fun activities, while anyone under five years receives free admission. It lends to a great family-friendly atmosphere.”

“In addition to the overall family experience, it is important that EDF delivers a substantial economic benefit for local businesses,” he added, “but to achieve an economic boost of £1m for the area in our first festival post-Covid is something we are incredibly proud of and a return of 14:1 for every pound received in public funding is particularly pleasing.

“It is our ambition to keep building on our success, to enhance the festival experience even further, and to make Eilean Dorcha Festival an unmissable occasion as part of a must-visit destination.”

Uist fuel poverty figures soar as energy prices rise by 80%

Stories about the rising cost of fuel have been a regular feature in Am Pàipear, with each new article setting out an alarming ‘new high’.

When we covered the issue back in November 2021, the standard tariff cap had risen to £1277, with pre-paid tariffs rising to £1309; when we looked again at the issue in the spring, the picture was more shocking still, with bills rising 54% to take the standard tariff to £1971 and pre-paid tariffs to £2017.
Last week’s Ofgem announcement of a further energy cap rise has made those figures look almost reasonable. The new cap sees the standard tariff cap rising 80% to £3,549, and further rises forecast to take average bills well over £6,500 by April of next year.

For households in the Western Isles, a worrying picture is made bleaker still by below average wages, the fierceness of our climate and some of the least energy efficient housing in the country.
Tighean Innse Gall’s last housing stock survey detailed that more than a third of island homes relied on electric heating, many using Total Heating Total Control systems that are costly to run and difficult to manage.

Scottish Government’s own figures for the period 2017 to 2019 evidenced fuel poverty rates of 40% for the Western Isles, the highest in Scotland and substantially higher than the 24% national average, with a quarter of our people living in extreme fuel poverty. In March this year that figure was reported to have risen to 57%, and is only set to get considerably worse when bills rise again in October.

Low income island households also lose out on Cold Weather Payments, which are offered when average temperatures fall below zero for seven consecutive days but don’t take account of the wind chill factor that has such a marked effect on the warmth of our homes.

The home energy crisis is set against the fastest ever fall in real pay and the inflation rate passing double figures for the first time in 40 years, pushing more and more households into debt. For those on the basic Universal Credit payment of £334.91 per month, (Just £265 for those under 25) it is difficult to see how that outcome can be avoided.

As the cost of living crisis grows, so do the number of people seeking help.

Uist CAB has seen an increase in the number of clients using its service and anticipates a steep rise as more and more people struggle with the cost of living.

Uist and Barra Foodback has seen the numbers using its services rise from 128 adults and 40 children in 2018, to 626 adults and 119 children in 2021, with over 570 emergency food parcels already distributed so far this year.

Local CAB Operations Manager Lynda MacLean has encouraged anyone who is struggling to meet their bills to get in touch: “Island folk are proud and there’s often a feeling that there’s always someone else worse off than yourself. But the situation is going to be very bleak for many people this winter. The best thing you can do is seek advice. It’s important if people are struggling with the cost of living that they reach out as there may be entitlement to additional benefits or grants. The CAB network offers free, impartial and confidential advice which is open to everyone regardless of background or circumstance.”

Uist Citizens Advice Bureau, Liniclate, Benbecula, HS7 5PJ
Telephone: 01870 602421
Money Advice: 01870 603807
bureau@uistcab.casonline.org.uk

Uist and Barra Foodbank will never turn people away and can be contacted on facebook, by phone on 01870 603819, or by email at uistandbarrarfoodbank@gmail.com. Food is available 24/7 outside the foodbank doors byTagsa Gardens at East Camp.

Tighean Innse Gall operate the Home Heat Support Fund for households struggling with energy costs – call them on 01851 706121 or email info@tighean.co.uk.

The Comhairle’s Financial Inclusion Service can provide information on financial and other support services, and has a dedicated Uist based officer. 01851 822654 – inclusion@cne-siar.gov.uk.

Samaritans operate a free, confidential 24hr support line for anyone, whatever they are going though. Contact them by phone on 116 123 or email them at jo@samaritans.org.

The prospect of empty shelves looms as Uist faces 30% reduction in freight capacity

With the planned closure of Uig Pier now only three months away, concerns have again been raised about how Uist will cope with the substantial reduction in its lifeline service for the six month period the pier is expected to be closed.
Draft timetables proposed by CalMac to cover the pier closure will see the Lochmaddy service diverted to Ullapool on a once daily 4.5 hour sailing leaving Lochmaddy at 05.30 and returning from Ullapoool at 15.30, with additional Lochboisdale to Mallaig sailings added to the timetable.
CalMac has stated that the contingency provision put forward will see Uist’s freight capacity reduced by one third, which will negatively impact food, materials and other urgent supplies.
Local and national elected members have raised their concerns with Scottish Government.
Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transport & Infrastructure Committee, has written to the Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth stating that the Uig cover plans are unacceptable and asking for immediate action.
Cllr Robertson said: “There can be no acceptable argument for Government to agree to put in place arrangements that they know are inadequate to meet the normal winter demand for travel. Nor can the failure to understand the social and economic cost of the decisions taken around this closure be condoned.
“CalMac in their consultation on serving our communities during the closure are on record as admitting the proposed service from Lochmaddy to Ullapool will only offer sufficient capacity for two thirds of the normal freight that needs to be carried to and from Uist. This is an incredible admission.”
Alasdair Allan MSP has also raised concerns with Scottish Government, issuing the following statement: “Uist faces the unbearable reduction of a third of scheduled capacity. Much of the island’s service resilience would depend on the Lochboisdale-Mallaig route, despite merely 21 sailings being completed on this route between November 2021 and March 2022 – the corresponding period of the Uig outage last year.”
“I am very concerned that there are so many unknowns around transport arrangements and contingency so close to the planned closure of the pier. I have therefore asked the Scottish Government to consider if it is possible to delay the project works to allow more time for viable arrangements to be put in place, either until the same period in 2023-2024, or until additional tonnage can be secured.”
Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant has also called for “an urgent rethink” on the plans, stating: “It is madness to press ahead with the closure of Uig for at least six months when it is absolutely clear that no acceptable arrangements are in place to protect the islands’ economy and the basic need for people to travel between islands. I have asked the Scottish Government to reconsider the case for a temporary linkspan which I am assured is perfectly feasible but has so far been ruled out on grounds of cost. That has to be revisited in the light of what their alternative is clearly going to cost the Western Isles economy.”
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have commissioned a new socio-economic impact assessment to better understand the cost of Uist’s failing ferry service and to support the case for a more robust mitigation plan and potentially, a compensation scheme.
Cllr Robertson has proposed a potential increase in capacity, telling Am Pàipear: “As we understand it Calmac are in contact with both Pentland Ferries and Transport Scotland regarding the feasibility of chartering MV Pentalina on a bareboat basis. Well informed sources tell us that MV Pentalina needs some work done on it to get it ready for charter, and of course Transport Scotland would have to make funding available. Obviously MV Pentalina would help with the overall resilience of the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services and be of benefit particularly until the new vessels enter service.”
Cllr Robertson continued: “If the Government will not agree to charter the MV Pentalina then surely the time has come for funds to be found to allow CMAL to purchase MV Arrow in the same manner that MV Helliar and MV Hildasay were purchased for the Northern Isles services. MV Arrow could then provide the overnight freight service to Stornoway releasing MV Loch Seaforth to operate a daytime service of up to three journeys each way per day.”
Should funds be found for the purchase of MV Arrow then this extra freight capacity could be opened up to Uist hauliers by operating MV Loch Bhrusda as second vessel on the Sound of Harris service in winter 2022/23.”
Cllr Robertson has also requested urgent action be taken to increase capacity on current boats, asking the Minister to: “recognise the urgency of the situation and approve the funds needed to allow CalMac to increase crew levels to reinstate the full Mezzanine deck capacity of MV Hebrides. This would be a welcome and common sense intervention that will take away some of the pain felt in Harris and Uist from the failure of Ferguson Marine to deliver vessel 802 into service until at least for Summer 2023.”
Harris Councillor Grant Fulton has set up an online petition in reference to the Harris ferry service, which at the time Am Pàipear went to print had 5300 signatures.

Paul Steele takes the Comhairle’s hottest seat

On Tuesday, 17th May, Councillor Paul Steele was elected as Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the first elected member from the southern isles to hold the post since Father Calum Maclellan led the early Council in the 1970s.

Cllr Steele described the appointment as ‘a huge honour for me, and for Uist’.

The responsibility of Leader will sit alongside Cllr Steele’s other role as elected member for Uibhist a Deas, Èirisgeigh agus Beinn na Faoghla, and the balancing act required to meet both the needs of his own ward constituents and the wider Western Isles remit will not be easy.

Cllr Steele said: “I am very aware that taking the role of Leader will stretch my capacity and put additional strain on family life. Pre- Covid it was not unusual for me to be away from home for 40 plus nights a year on council business. I’m under no illusion that the Leader role will be any less demanding but having talked it through with my wife and family, I’m confident that the balance can be struck.”

“It helps that the Comhairle is my only work, I have no other job to take my attention. I want to assure the people of Uist that they, and the projects I am involved with, will continue to be at the front of my mind.”

Other Uist Councillors in key roles include Uisdean Robertson, who was re- elected as Chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Cllr Robertson’s considerable experience will be much called on as the Comhairle battles the ongoing issue of ferry failures. Cllr Susan Thomson will take the role of Deputy Chair to Uisdean, with Cllr Mustapha Hocine taking Deputy Chair of the Sustainable Development Committee.

A song will be sung

The weather in Daliburgh didn’t quite live up to the name of ‘bright hill’ on Friday 13th May, when the team behind Cnoc Soilleir gathered to celebrate another important milestone in the project’s history: the formal handing over of the keys of its state the art community building

The rain did hold off however, as Board members past and present, along with contractors Neil MacInnes and David MacInnes, were piped into the building by Ceòlas Tutor Allan Henderson.

Sue Macfarlane, Principal of UHI Outer Hebrides, and Chair of the Cnoc Soilleir Board, was delighted to formally take ownership of the keys on behalf of the community: “Today is the culmination of our shared ambition and the collective efforts of everyone involved – not just UHI Outer Hebrides and Ceòlas, but the contractors, the funders and the local people who have supported us over the years. We have all put our hearts and souls into this project and I’m just delighted this breathtaking building is now the community’s to enjoy.” The formal handover will be followed by a community open day on June 13th, when everyone will be welcome to share in the celebrations with the Cnoc Soilleir team.

Ceòlas Chair and Cnoc Soilleir Board Director Mairi MacInnes, who was unfortunately unable to attend the event, encouraged people to come along to see the building for themselves when it opens to the public on June 13th: “A warm welcome awaits everyone who drops in on the open day and perhaps a song will be sung and a reel or two will be danced!”

Mairi continued: “Getting Cnoc Soilleir Phase 1 built during lockdown has been a tremendous achievement and this has been possible because we contracted a local construction company. Great credit is due to our staff , the design team and MacInnes Bros for rising to the unprecedented challenges of Covid.

“Ceòlas is excited about holding the July Summer School in CS – the first since 2019.”

Work at the Cnoc Soilleir site started in February 2020, and continued through lockdown despite the many difficulties that the pandemic presented. This current phase of the build has delivered world-class facilities to meet the needs of both the college’s educational programmes, and Ceòlas’ community-led activities. A bespoke recording studio, a library, an exhibition space, and a flexible communal space for gatherings of up to 60 people, will transform the experience of Ceòlas summer school tutors and students this July and the college students who study here in the years to come.

The work was delivered by local contractor MacInnes Brothers (MIB), represented on the day by Project Manager David MacInnes, and Contracts Manager Neil MacInnes. Neil told Am Pàipear: “We are delighted to be handing over the keys to this fantastic building. All of us who have worked on the project are immensely proud of what we have delivered, both in terms of the high standard of the build itself, and in terms of the jobs we have created and maintained as a result. Over the course of the build, we have employed 14 local tradesmen, with one joiner moving his family home to Uist as a result of this opportunity.”

“The project was a complex one, and it’s success evidences that local firms are not only well able to deliver the highest possible technical requirements but can also bring the local knowledge required to manage the challenges that working on a remote island can present.” Funds are already part-secured for the next phase of the project, which will extend the building to the west to include a performance hall, with acoustics suitable for performance and seating for audiences of up to 200 people, a small dance studio with sprung floor, and additional teaching spaces.

Cost increases and tax rises will affect all households in Scotland

Abigail Taylor

Island households face a toxic cocktail of cost increases and tax rises in the weeks to come, adding to the considerable financial burden many individuals and families shoulder in the Outer Hebrides.

National Insurance and council tax will rise in the spring, energy prices have already rocketed, and the cost of groceries and a tank of fuel is already above the national average in the Western Isles.

Rising inflation is making headlines across the country, reported to hit a 30-year high, at 5.4 percent, in January.

Subsequently, at the beginning of last month, OFGEM announced that the price cap, which sets the average price for energy bills from utilities, would rise from £1,277 to £1,971 a year for standard tariff customers and £1,309 to £2,017 a year for prepayment meter customers in April.

It has been noted that the rise represents 54 percent increase in the price cap and that residents in the Western Isles already pay energy costs often 30-50 percent higher than the mainland.

People in the Western Isles already experience the worst levels of fuel poverty in the Scotland and the new hike in the price cap, which OFGEM says is as a result of a fourfold rise in wholesale energy prices worldwide, is expected to cost most households, on average, £693 more per annum.

Responding to the rise in the price cap, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes outlined plans to give 73 percent of Scottish households, those in council tax bands A to D and those eligible for council tax reduction, a £150 payment, with a further £10 million to be targeted at people struggling with fuel bills.

Alasdair Allan MSP, said: “Matters cannot continue as they are, with crippling energy bills for islanders set to get even worse if no interventions are made.”

He said that the Scottish Government cost of living payment would help many, but was not enough, and called for urgent action from the UK Government. Dr Allan noted that the power to legislate on energy matters rests with Westminster.

“I am calling on the UK Government again to urgently reconsider their unfair and outdated energy distribution levies and to commit to doing far more to support people in the islands and across Scotland.”

Tighean Innse Gall, through the ‘Gluasad Comhla’ principle of moving services together, where if someone needs support from one service, they also receive assistance from others, works closely with the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar financial inclusion team, Home Energy Scotland, Macmillan Benefits and Western Isles Citizens Advice Service. Help provided includes support through energy advice to cut bills, delivering energy efficiency support through the home energy efficiency programme on behalf of the council, applications for financial support for prepayment meters, fuel debt alleviation, warm home discount applications, and small energy measures to help reduce energy use immediately.

Tighean Innse Gall energy services director, Dan Morrison, said: “We knew this was coming but even, so the level of the increase is shocking. Tighean Innse Gall can help in many ways, so please get in touch.”

It was reported in the Scottish Housing Condition Survey that 40 percent of all households in the Outer Hebrides are in fuel poverty, compared to the Scottish average of 24 percent. However, the scale of the issue is more stark when the figure for extreme fuel poverty is factored in, presently standing at 24% of all households in the Western Isles.

In addition to increasing energy costs, council tax is to be raised three percent in the Western Isles in April. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar agreed the increase when it set its budget last month, having received a one year settlement from the Scottish Government, with a net reduction of £0.2 million, leading to a deficit in the draft budget of £0.541 million.

National insurance payments will also be increased at the beginning of the next financial year in April.

Under the plans, employees, employers and the self-employed will all pay 1.25p more in the pound for National Insurance for a year starting in April. After that, the extra tax will be collected as a new Health and Social Care Levy.

Incoming changes to National Insurance will see an employee on £20,000 a year pay an extra £89 in tax, while someone on £50,000 will pay an additional £464. However, also from April, people earning less than £9,880 a year, or £823 a month, will not have to pay National Insurance and will not have to pay the new Health and Social Care Levy.

Rises in tax and energy costs compound will add increasing pressure to households already squeezed in the Western Isles.

Am Pàipear conducted a simple analysis of basic costs between Benbecula, Inverness and Glasgow. Fuel prices were compared and also the cost of a small list of basic good purchased from supermarkets (similar branded items and identical quantities were compared, with prices sourced from mainstream supermarkets).

Significant differences were found in fuel prices, as might be expected, with petrol costing 145.9 p/litre in Inverness, 148.9p/litre in Glasgow and 160.9p/litre on Benbecula (12p dearer than the next highest location) on 24th February 2022. Similarly, diesel cost 147.9p/litre in Inverness, 151.9p/litre in Glasgow and 166.9p/litre on Benbecula on 24th February 2022. Higher fuel prices, compared to the mainland, are usual in the islands and serve to highlight the even greater basic cost of living in the Western Isles.

Oil prices were on the rise at the time of writing, the price of a barrel of oil surpassing $100 a barrel at the end of the month, causing some expectation that fuel prices would continue to go up, creating further pressure for motorists in the Outer Hebrides.

Groceries compared favourably for some products, with vegetables coming in at the same price in Inverness, Glasgow and Benbecula. However, several essential items were found to cost more, for example, a 2ltr bottle of semi-skimmed milk cost £1.35 in Inverness and Glasgow, compared to £1.50 on Benbecula. Bread cost £1.10 in Inverness and Glasgow and £1.30 on Benbecula.

Readers can compare the prices sampled in Glasgow, Inverness and Benbecula in the tables below, with data captured on 24th February 2022.

With household income set to be crunched further in the coming weeks and prices for basic commodities already higher than the mainland, the months to come will prove challenging, in particular for those on modest earnings in the Western Isles.

Inflation and welfare cuts cause concern for Citizens Advice Bureau staff in the run up to Christmas

Abigail Taylor

For several weeks news bulletins have been dominated with stories about the rising cost of living and cuts to household income, with causes ranging from the end of the furlough scheme, rising energy bills, soaring fuel prices and a cut of £20 per week to Universal Credit.

Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau operations manager Lynda MacLean and advisors Susan Jones and Isobel Morrison discussed the impact of rising inflation on the local community with Am Pàipear.

“It is having a major effect on people, especially clients who are already struggling to make ends meet. We have seen a dramatic increase in food bank referrals over the last couple of months. While the food bank is there for people who are in need, it should not be something that the community has to rely on,” said Lynda.

1st October 2021 saw the introduction of an increase on the energy price cap for the 15 million customers across the UK. Individuals on default tariffs paying through direct debit will see an increase of £139 from £1138 to £1277. Prepayment customers will see an increase of £153 from £1156 to £1309.

“We have the highest energy costs here and if you are receiving around £70 per week from Universal Credit and your electric bill is reaching £40, it does not leave much to feed yourself and a family so this is why people are becoming reliant on food banks. If you require an advance as well on your payments, it is taken off the next pay, so regardless you will still be stuck,” explained Susan.

“Some tenants are not able to choose their source of energy or which type of meter they can make use of in their rented homes. Energy prices have shot up dramatically and people here cannot access smart metres. We often find that companies advertising great deals are only marketed for those who can get a smart meter and therefore this community is missing out,” added Isobel.

Fuel prices have also been increasing, adding more pressure to those struggling, with petrol, at the time of writing, at around £1.50 a litre and diesel £1.60.

“It can be a real challenge to live here while surviving on benefits. You have all these factors and now fuel prices are skyrocketing and people here need cars in order to get to work. If the price of fuel continues to rise it is another blow to those struggling,” said Lynda.

“We are lucky as our company gives an island allowance to meet the needs of living here but not every place of work is able to do the same. We believe that the benefits system should have some sort of uplift or island allowance to meet the higher cost of living as it is not being taken into account currently.”
Personal Independence Payment, a disability payment for working age individuals, has also been affected because of COVID-19.

“Some clients were not getting reviews of their benefits because of the pandemic but they are being sent out now. PIP does not have the manpower to be able to get through all of the reviews quickly enough, so there is a much longer wait time now and people are even having their payments cut because forms were not returned back in time. In fact they had been sent back but had not been processed in the correct timeframe. Medical assessments are also being done over the phone. We do not feel that this is an adequate way to assess someone’s medical needs,” explained Susan.

Wait times have gone from a few weeks to more than eight months, resulting in some payments being made in lump sums, which for a lot of clients is not helpful as they are already struggling with money management.

“I think there has also been an explosion of debt problems following the pandemic. People have been putting off their money problems to see if it will sort itself out but actually now realising that they are in real trouble,” added Susan.

Looking ahead, as the winter months come in, there is a much concern within CAB.

“We have not felt the full effects of the energy price rise and the Universal Credit uplift being taken away. It usually takes a few weeks for the effects to be felt and that is going to come at the worst time for people at Christmas. Some people could have to choose whether to eat or heat and that choice is heartbreaking to make especially if you have children. It all has a knock on effect on your physical and mental health and then onto other issues like debt and money management,” said Lynda.

“We are seeing a mental health crisis on these islands and the rise in the cost of living and cuts are only making it worse for those who are already the most vulnerable in society. People will often come to us with a particular issue but after having a chat with an advisor it soon becomes obvious that there is something else leading onto this particular problem that can also be fixed. We try to do as much as possible with clients while they are here either on the phone or in person by appointments,” added Susan.

“People are very proud here and we have a tough job trying to remove the stigma of asking for help. Help is available but unfortunately a lot of people do not know what the help is or how to access. So it is getting people to realise that they are entitled to first ask for help and second to take it,” said Isobel.

“People working for CAB have negotiating powers, so we can speak to energy companies on your behalf to try and get better deals, assist with getting holds on debt repayments and we can even speak to the council in regards to council tax. We want to make sure you are making every possible bit of help available. Every person in front of an advisor is different and we will assess them fully to decide what the best advice is for them,” continued Lynda.

Under the current work from home advice, clients are encouraged to make telephone appointments. However, if a face-to-face meeting is required tit can be arranged and CAB also has access to the ‘Near Me’ software for secure video conferencing, which is also used by the NHS.

“We would never turn anyone away, even if we have to refer to another agency, we are open for business and encourage anyone to call,” added Isobel.

So far this financial year, the total client financial gain CAB has recorded for the Western Isles is £501,862.43, while the top three categories of enquiry at the Benbecula office are benefits (32.84 percent, 22.76 percent of which is related to Universal Credit), debt (22.76 percent) and utilities and communications (14.89 percent).

Readers can contact the Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau office in Balivanich at bureau@uistcab.casonline.org.uk or call 01870602421.

Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau is today warning that a ‘perfect storm’ of financial changes are set to leave thousands of people worse off.

Abigail Taylor

Autumn sees the end of the furlough scheme, rising energy bills and a cut of £20 per week to Universal Credit.

An increase on the energy price cap was introduced on 1st October 2021 for the 15 million customers across the UK. Those on default tariffs paying by direct debit will see an increase of £139 from £1,138 to £1277. Prepayment customers will see an increase of £153 from £1,156 to £1309.

Against this background, Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau is launching a campaign reminding people in the Western Isles that free, confidential and impartial advice is available for anyone who needs it.

Operations Manager, Lynda MacLean said: “The end of furlough, an increase in energy bills and the £20 cut to Universal Credit are all about to happen over the next few weeks. Any one of these would be a challenge to low-income families, but all of them happening together is going to be a perfect storm that will hit really hard. We also face a particular challenge in the islands due to the additional cost of heating homes and the high level of fuel poverty in our area.”

“Another issue that will disproportionately affect the Islands more than urban areas, is the Scottish Government’s decision to remove oil boilers from the Warmer Scotland Scheme nationally. This was done with no consultation or engagement with stakeholders and as a consequence of the partnership arrangement between the SNP government and the Greens.”

“In the past couple of weeks, management and staff at Western Isles Citizens Advice Bureau have met with both our MP & MSP, who have assured us that they will make representations on behalf of our clients to both parliaments, and we are grateful to them for taking the time to do so.”

“People facing tough financial choices in the coming weeks should know that our advice adds up. Our team of advisers are here to help anyone who is in financial difficulty. Remember our advice is always free, confidential and impartial.”

“We can help you with any financial problem, there may be grants or benefits you are entitled to but not aware off, including the Warm Home Discount Scheme. We also offer help and advice in relation to debt. Last year we unlocked a total of £846,140.73 in financial gain for people who came to see us.”

To get advice please contact your local Bureau –
Uist
Tel: 01870 602421
Email: bureau@uistcab.casonline.org.uk

Lewis
Tel: 01851 705727
Email: bureau@lewiscab.casonline.org.uk

Harris
Tel: 01859 502431
Email: bureau@harriscab.casonline.org.uk

Barra
Tel: 01871 810608
Email: bureau@barracab.casonline.org.uk
or get our advice online at www.cas.org.uk/our-advice-adds-up

Western Isles average house price up more than 50% since 2016.

Iain Stephen Morrison

Office for National Statistics figures reveal that the Western Isles recorded the biggest increase in average house price over the last five years across the whole UK.

Statistics published in the UK House Price Index (February 2021) reveal that the average price of a house in the Outer Hebrides in February 2016 was £87,494 and that figure had risen to £132,397 in February 2021, representing an increase of 51.32%.

However, despite the significant increase, the average house price in the Western Isles is still among the 30 lowest price areas in the UK, and more than £100,000 lower than the average house cost in the UK.

Confirmation of the substantial increase in house prices comes as young people are campaigning over being ‘priced out of the market’ for housing in the Highlands and Islands.

Last autumn a collective of young people from the islands published an open letter calling for action to improve access to housing in economically fragile areas like the Outer Hebrides.