A Masterclass in Co-operation: PB in Orkney

The ferries in Kirkwall are very familiar sight to Orcadians. They pull in to the harbour like busy buses and are quick to offload passengers, cargo and cars before ploughing away in to the distance, making their way back to one of the thirteen archipelago islands. Today the ferries were bringing in representatives from the Islands to vote on an inter-Island PB event called ‘Your Island, Your Choice’.  The island representatives are residents of some of the most remote areas in Scotland, like Graemsay which has 23 souls and regularly finds itself cut off due to bad weather or failed technology. 

The representatives are drawn from a variety of organisations including community development trusts, community associations or community councils which are working hard to develop and maintain projects that are vital to the survival of their community - initiatives like the community transport scheme and village hall extension on Hoy.  In conversation with the representative I was struck by their unwavering commitment to island life and how much time, organisation and creativity they needed to have to maintain island activity as well as caring for their families. Taking into account the number and remoteness of the islands, resident's lack of time due to multi-tasking and maintaining existing entrepreneurial projects, this should have been one of the most difficult PB processes in Scotland.

Lots to talk about before the event begins

Lots to talk about before the event begins

Following a warm welcome from Voluntary Action Orkney (VAO) staff and a hot cup of coffee and homemade shortbread, the delegates got themselves settled into a beautiful room in the Lifestyle Centre in the Pickoquoy Leisure Centre, the room was bright and serves in its day job as a facility for people with disabilities. It has a large windowed wall with views out to a well-kept garden and then on to the Peedie Sea (a small pond near Kirkwall’s busy harbour).   The unexpected March sunshine flooded the room and added to the chatty atmosphere, encouraging us all to cast off our jackets and thick jumpers.  The island representatives were coming to the event with delegated authority (by their community) to listen to presentations and use four votes per island to select a community-led project which will benefit communities in more than one island.  Some of the islands couldn’t make the meeting so they phoned in their votes.

The PB event was organised by the Voluntary Action Orkney (VAO) who successfully applied for the Scottish Government's Community Choices fund topped up by a contribution from The Orkney Partnership, to give away £36,000 to community led projects for Orkney’s island communities.

Prior to this event each of the thirteen islands held their own local PB event to distribute £2,300 to community ideas.  VAO trained island representatives to run their own PB process, to produce marketing material and to establish a local steering committee to oversee the process.  Talking about the Graemsay island process, Irene Mathieson said that 'It wasn’t difficult to get ideas from our community and there was broad agreement for the initiatives that we voted on.' These were a stand water pipe and lamps for the community centre, and a HI FI and games table for younger islanders.  Irene said: 'We wanted something that would benefit the whole island, particularly the children…We discussed the various projects that we might choose and out of that we selected four projects.  Everybody on the island voted except one chap.'

Neil Rendall - Chair of Papay Community Council said: 'The process was very fair. We all got a paper to vote and you could put it in a box in the local shop....We got a very good response and it seemed to work pretty well.'  Residents were asked for their suggestions for consideration, and these were communicated through the newsletter 'Papay Matters'. The money was eventually spent on four projects including singing workshops and North Side Cinema.

Steven Walters from Eday Partnership said: 'We wanted to get the people who weren't the usual suspects involved, those who may not be involved in other committees.' Eday islanders eventually voted for a number of projects including outdoor benches and furniture which will be made on the island.

With their own island events now complete the representatives were in Kirkwall to consider three inter-island projects which would benefit more than one community.  Up for consideration were:

  • the Blide Trust’s ‘Building Up Community Wellbeing’ offering drop in sessions for Tai Chi, mindfulness, gardening and aromatherapy for Rousey, Egilsay and Shapinsay.
  • The Papay Boat Scheme – to maintain a boat schedule for islanders when there is no scheduled ferry service
  • Eday Partnership’s proposal to kit out five islands with hardware and software to connect to the internet and to each other.

When the votes were counted, it was clear that there was overwhelming support for the Blide Trust which will help islanders unwind and cope with everyday stresses and strains.  After much debate about using the remaining sum of money to support another initiative Blide generously donated over £1,000 to ensure that Eday Partnership’s proposal would also be funded.

The fun event in Orkney demonstrates the innate flexibility of the PB process.  Each of the islands came to the vote in different ways from a ballot box in the shop, to yellow lego pieces placed in a jar at a community meeting, to inviting the community to approve the four ideas for funding – (not so much a vote as involving and agreeing the way forward).  Residents were involved in all sorts of ways from initial training in PB, to overseeing the voting process. The inter-island vote, and subsequent discussion, was a masterclass in co-operation.  Orkney's difficult and remote physical environment should have made this one of the most challenging PB processes to date. Instead the event fostered co-operation and a spirit of partnership from those involved.