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Yesterday’s announcement that £20 million in UK Government Levelling Up funds is to come to the Western Isles is a relief to the local economy, after a long campaign to get recognition for island infrastructure needs.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt made the announcement yesterday (Wednesday 22 November) in his Autumn Budget Statement. The money is part of £80 million for the expansion of the Levelling Up Partnerships programme to Scotland.

Today Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said they would work with the UK Government and local partners to develop projects which are anticipated to include those supporting culture and heritage, net zero and fuel poverty, community infrastructure and efforts to tackle depopulation.

It’s a consolation prize worth less than a third of what was bid for by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in earlier rounds of the fund, when two bids of £18m for culture and heritage and £50m for spinal route development were rejected.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus MacNeil described the UK Government’s promises as ‘hollow’ in January this year, when he was told that funding totalling £68 million had been refused to the islands, while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s own constituency of Richmond, North Yorkshire, received £19 million for a town centre enhancement scheme.

At that time, Mr MacNeil said both the hoped-for island projects would have brought major benefits to the Western Isles, and Comhairle leader Councillor Paul Steele said the people of the Western Isles had been let down.

Today, Cllr Steele said: “At the UK Islands Forum the Comhairle called on all levels of Government to prioritise island communities and make funding decisions that lead to real positive long-term outcomes.

“This investment of £20 million has the potential to make a real difference to the Outer Hebrides.

“Across the Outer Hebrides we have a suite of transformational economic development opportunities and am I hopeful that the Levelling Up Partnership approach will be the catalyst to deliver on these opportunities and create new jobs, particularly in our more peripheral communities.”

Yesterday Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove confirmed that the Islands Forum had influenced the position, when he said: “I was in Stornoway just last month to chair the UK Islands Forum and I know that community leaders have strong ideas on how we can break down barriers to levelling up and improve opportunities for everyone living and working in the islands.

“I look forward to working directly with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the Scottish Government as we develop plans for the most impactful way to invest this £20m in the Western Isles.”

Isles MP Angus MacNeil says announcements of support in this week’s Autumn budget are too little, too late and calls for clarity on how the funding announced for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar compares to cash lost from the EU since Brexit.

Mr MacNeil said: “Unfortunately, this week’s budget announcements failed to offer much hope to households in the Western Isles. The budget failed to introduce a £400 energy bill rebate for households and failed to take any action to reduce food prices.

“In tougher measures for Universal Credit claimants, which will hit the most vulnerable and disabled people, more people are expected to be declared fit for work and required to look for jobs or have their benefits cut.

“While the funding announcement for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is to be welcomed, it is a drop in the ocean compared to levels of EU funding prior to Brexit. I have written to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, seeking clarity on how funding announced for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar compares to money lost from EU funds since Brexit.

“At least £90m of EU funding has been channelled to projects in the Outer Hebrides over the past 25 years and it is misleading to argue that there is an equivalent level of funding through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and other sources.”

(Comments from the MP have been added since this article was first posted.)