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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.