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Extra care places approved

SHETLAND Islands Council is moving ahead with plans to spend £14 million to provide around 60 new care places in Lerwick by 2015.

On Thursday afternoon councillors expressed alarm that the plan would cost an additional £1.1 million in running costs per year.

Officials will now embark on the detailed design work to provide up to 14 additional places at Taing House and Edward Thomason House; build a new dementia centre for 20 people plus 10 additional care places on a green field site; and also build a new care centre on the site of the old library at King Harald Street, providing 18 places.

However before any building work can commence, officials have to identify savings within the council's revenue budget to cover the running cost of every individual project.

There were some calls for the council to lobby central government to come up with additional funds since providing high quality care places is not a statutory requirement for the local authority.

Councillor Gary Robinson said he wasn't sure how the SIC could afford this since there was no commitment that savings made in the education budget could be used to help finance social care.

He said the council was even more cash strapped than was initially thought. "Yes, it is very much needed, but there is a growing crisis in terms of funding. The government needs to help fund this," he said.

Councillors also decided to change their policy on the maximum number of beds in a care centre.

Up until now the number was restricted to 20 to allow for a homely atmosphere, but in order to allow economies of scale this number can now be higher.

Fair Isle crisis meeting

FAIR Isle residents facing bankruptcy after the collapse of an Orkney building firm are holding an emergency meeting with local MSP Tavish Scott and senior council figures to look for help.

Several local households that provided accommodation and other services to Andrew H Wilson stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds owed by the company, which called in the receivers this month.

The company had almost completed the £4 million Fair Isle bird observatory (FIBO) when it went into administration, blaming bad weather last winter that caused delays and extra expense.

The new observatory, which attracts ornithologists from all over the world, opened this week saying it would do what it could to help the local businesses that had lost out. They are able to house guests, but the warden’s accommodation and other parts of the project remain unfinished.

The island’s residents have chartered a special flight to take them to Shetland mainland on Monday to meet Mr Scott, Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness, SIC head of economic development Neil Grant, Shetland South local councillors, local directors of FIBO and the other agencies involved in the observatory.

Any islanders unable to make the flight will be able to attend the meeting at Lerwick’s Hayfield House via videolink.

Fair Isle resident Kathy Coull said that the impact of the company’s collapse was becoming more apparent every day. “We have to take whatever action we can and that is why we are having this meeting,” she said.

"Even if the weather prevents us getting there, at least we have the technology to enable us to participate. Our geographic isolation does not prevent us from having full representation at this, or future meetings."

Robinson claims unequal treatment at SIC

SHETLAND councillor Gary Robinson has voiced his concern about a meeting he says took place with representatives of Aberdeen City Council prior to next week’s public hearing into the island authority.

In 2008 Aberdeen City were the subject of a major inquiry by the Accounts Commission into their poor governance, low staff morale and overspending.

On Monday and Tuesday the Accounts Commission will hold a similar public hearing about governance and accounting issues at Shetland Islands Council.

On Thursday Mr Robinson, who will be giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday afternoon, said that senior SIC councillors and officials had met with Aberdeen City’s chief executive Sue Bruce and council leader John Stewart last Monday in Lerwick.

"I believe the fact that only some of those councillors and officers who are due to be heard by the Accounts Commission next week were invited, is wholly unacceptable,” the Shetland West councillor said.

“It also gives further weight to my submission to the Commission where I raised concerns that not all councillors were being given access to the same help and assistance."
He pointed to the treatment he received at the hands of the SIC’s head of legal services Jan Riise during a dispute he had with fellow councillor Caroline Miller, which led both members to be reported to the Standards Commission for Scotland.

Mr Robinson said that while Mrs Miller publicly thanked Mr Riise for his help and assistance, he had been advised by the legal chief that he was “on his own”.

Mr Riise was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

In brief for 25 June 2010

Open exchange

SHETLAND Charitable Trust spent almost two hours on Thursday morning locked in talks with the Scottish charity regulator OSCR addressing concerns about the organisation’s structure.

OSCR have told the trust that it must alter its make up so that it is not controlled by Shetland Islands Council, who account for 21 of the trust’s 23 trustees.

Following the meeting trust chairman Bill Manson said there had been “an open and direct exchange of views” which had led to “a much improved understanding of both parties’ position”.

Further discussions will take place with a view to having a follow up meeting, possibly in September.

 

Doing well in the pool

SHETLAND swimmers have continued to deliver good performances at the Scottish National Open Swimming Championships, in Glasgow.

On Wednesday, Andrea Strachan finished 9th in the final of the 50 metre breaststroke, improving on her performance in the semi-finals.

Amy Harper, meanwhile, put in a stunning performance in the semi-final of the 100m freestyle to qualify for Thursday evening’s final as the 10th fastest qualifier.

She said he was “chuffed if not surprised” when she looked up at the score board to see her time and then she realised she had made the final.

Callum Macgregor produced a personal best performance in the 200m freestyle, while Felix Gifford also performed well in the 50m butterfly and 200m freestyle.

SIC inquiry

ALMOST 40 people will be giving evidence over two days at the Accounts Commission hearing into Shetland Islands Council, which start today (Monday).

The local government watchdog ordered the public inquiry into how Britain’s most northerly local authority is governed after the high profile fall out that led to the departure of former chief executive David Clark just nine months into the job.

They also want to look into the reasons behind the council’s accounts being qualified for the past four years because of its failure to group them with those of the £200 million Shetland Charitable Trust, which is controlled by the council membership.

In her report into the SIC in May, Scotland’s Controller of Audit said that councillors did not appear to be acting in the interest of the council as a whole.

Caroline Gardner also said that working relationships within the authority had deteriorated to the point where it could affect the council’s ability to deliver services efficiently and effectively.

This week the council will find out if its offer to employ Orkney Islands Council’s chief executive Alistair Buchan for two and a half years is accepted by his current employers. If he does move north he will be tasked with the job of modernising the SIC and sorting out its current governance problems.

The public hearing begins at 10am on Monday morning at Lerwick Town Hall with a five strong panel led by Accounts Commission chairman John Baillie.

First up will be Ms Gardner and the team from Audit Scotland who have been investigating the authority for the past few months.

They will be followed by the council leadership and the senior management team, Shetland Charitable Trust and the six councillors who submitted a 20 point complaint about Mr Clark in December last year that was never addressed.

On Tuesday Mr Clark himself will start off the day, followed by the council’s three unions, assistant chief executive Willie Shannon, the chief executive of local authority umbrella group Rory Mair, northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott.

Finally the inquiry will hear from four independent witnesses – Kathy Greaves, Les Sinclair, Vic Thomas and Kevin Learmonth, vice chairman of anti Viking Energy wind farm campaign group Sustainable Shetland.

The Accounts Commission said that it may consider recalling witnesses at the end of the hearing.

A list of witnesses and the time of their appearance can be found at http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/local/2010/shetland_witness_schedule.pdf

The 19 submissions to the hearing can be read at http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/about/ac/shetland_submissions.php

Trust must wait for budget bail out

SHETLAND Recreational Trust must wait before it hears whether its budget this year will be bailed out to the tune of £400,000.

Island councillors meeting as trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust on Thursday voted to defer a decision on handing over the cash to fill a black hole in the organisation’s budget.

Trustees were told that they as councillors were responsible for the budget problems after Shetland Islands Council’s services committee had reneged on an agreement to start paying for school children using the recreational trust’s leisure facilities.

Initially it appeared that the charitable trust would go ahead with the budget bail out, when trustees voted down a motion from councillor Jonathan Wills to refuse the payment.

Dr Wills claimed the payment would amount to a subsidy for a service which should be paid for by the council, something which Audit Scotland has frowned upon.

“We are going to cause a problem for the trust if we do this and I am very certain Audit Scotland will take an interest in this payment,” he said.

However councillor Betty Fullerton won the day when she suggested they defer the decision until they were certain how much of the £400,000 in question would be used for services which the council is obliged by law to provide, such as physical education.

“A lot of what we provide is above what we need to. I have no problem supporting what is above statutory provision, but they key is whether this is statutory or non statutory,” Mrs Fullerton said.

Viking project will test trust’s nerve

THE CUSTODIANS of Shetland’s oil wealth will need a “some nerve” if they decide to go ahead and draw up to £72 million to pay for the Viking Energy wind farm.

Shetland Charitable Trust, who control half of the wind project alongside power giant Scottish & Southern Energy, have been told the banking world is keen to invest in the £800 million project.

The trust itself will be expected to raise £72 million, more than one third of its investments which currently stand at £197 million.

Trust finance controller Jeff Goddard told Thursday’s meeting of trustees that there were three options to raise the cash, including raiding the reserves for the full amount, borrowing half of the cash or borrowing it all.

However Mr Goddard explained the cash would be tied up for at least three years and if the trust dipped into its pot of gold to raise all or part of the £72 million it would make it hard to maintain its current £11 million annual expenditure on local sport, leisure, welfare and amenity services.

“Removing money from the charitable trust’s investments would mean a reduction in charitable trust income. It would mean that there would be a period of spending out of our capital rather than our income.

“That will need careful managing and some nerve from the trust if that is going to happen,” Mr Goddard said.

Trustees agreed to draw down a further £750,000 to make up the £3 million cost to the trust of taking the wind farm to the planning stage, probably next year.

Trust chairman Bill Manson, who also chairs Viking Energy Ltd which the trust controls, said: “If I thought this was a bad bet financially I would not be agreeing to recommend to you that you should draw down the remaining £750,000.

“There would be no point in spending more money if I thought it was chucking good money after bad.”

Anti Viking Energy campaigners Sustainable Shetland said that the trust was taking unacceptable risks with the islands’ community funds.

Chairman Billy Fox said the trustees were not being told that this was a high risk investment being made at a time when government funding was facing cuts of 25 per cent over the next few years.

“This is incredibly high risk because it’s in Shetland. It could run into trouble because of a landslide, a change in government policy, interconnector charges and suddenly become worthless.

“It’s being built in an environment where it’s never been done before, where the logistical problems have never been faced before. It’s as if they are going to magic a wind farm into place. They’re throwing good money after bad.”

Meanwhile trustee/councillor Laura Baisley raised the question about whether local people might be able to invest in the project, referring to the enthusiasm shown for investing in the Blackwood whisky distillery several years ago.

That was a question that would have to wait until the project was further down the road, she was told.

The Viking Energy Partnership is due to publish an addendum to their planning application in July after several statutory bodies objected to their original plans in May last year.

Total work camp architects appointed

FRENCH oil company Total has appointed Archial Architects to design temporary living quarters and leisure facilities to house 800 construction workers in Shetland as work starts on building a £500 million gas processing plant at Sullom Voe.

The gas processing plant is being developed on land to the western side of the Hill of Crooksetter as part of Total's £2.5 billion Laggan-Tormore project, 140 kilometres north west of Shetland.

The plant is due to open in 2014 with the bulk of the construction work expected to take place during 2012.

The accommodation camp will be built on council owned land at Sella Ness about one mile from the construction site.

As well as dormitory facilities, the self contained block will contain a canteen, recreation area, reading room, gymnasium, computer room/internet café, medics' room, convenience store, laundry room, prayer room and a bar.

Other amenities will include a five-a-side football pitch to the north of the accommodation block.

A planning application for the camp will be submitted by the end of this month following a consultation exercise last month.

Should planning permission be granted later this summer, work on the accommodation block could commence before the end of the year.

Archial Architects operate worldwide and have 17 offices around the globe, including Aberdeen.

The company's Charles Smith said: "The proposed design solution for this project is based on a modular construction method involving pre-made accommodation units being shipped to Sella Ness, where there is a pier immediately adjacent to the application site.

"This transportation arrangement will enhance the sustainability of the development and avoid any disruption on the roads in Shetland.

"An added benefit is that it will allow the building to be dismantled in four years time when the gas plant has been completed, leaving the site in a fully serviced condition and suitable for use by a subsequent commercial operator."

The two storey residential building will be clad within metal panels and finished in a variety of colours including red, blue, yellow and green with the amenity block clad in timber.


 

New training grant scheme

SHETLAND Fisheries Training Association (SFTA) has launched a new grant scheme to encourage more people taking up training courses.

The association invites employees of any local fish catching business (registered Shetland pelagic, white fish or shellfish fishing vessel), local fish processing business and local aquaculture business wishing to undertake nationally recognised training courses to apply for funding.

Successful applicants can receive up to 25 per cent grant assistance towards the cost of eligible training courses.  

SFTA training co-ordinator Caroline Hepburn said: "I am pleased the board of SFTA have decided to utilise some of our accrued funds to support industry candidates, many of whom undertake training at their own expense.

“We hope that by offering them a small saving it will encourage more uptakes of courses and this in turn will increase the local skills base." 

There is an upper limit on how much an individual or company can access in a year and the grant scheme will be operational for 12 months from June 2010.

For further information, contact Caroline Hepburn on 01595 772 216 or e-mail:
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Man charged with attacking woman

A SHETLAND man was released on bail from Lerwick Sherifff Court on Wednesday after he appeared from custody charged with assaulting a young woman on Monday.

Colin Woodworth, of Park Wynd, Sandwick made no plea and the case was continued until 7 July.

The 31 year old is charged with attacking the woman at Hayfield House, on Lerwick’s Hayfield Lane, seizing her by the throat, pushing her against a wall, punching her on the body causing her to fall to the ground and forcing her legs on to her body to her injury.

He has also been charged with a breach of the peace by pulling a phone from her hand preventing her from calling the police, throwing the phone away and shouting and swearing.

Honorary sheriff Malcolm Bell made a condition of bail that the accused did not approach or contact the woman or go to an address in Lerwick’s St Olaf Street.

Bright future for aquaculture

A MAJOR aquaculture conference will be held for the first time in Scotland next year to herald a new age for the industry, the government said on Wednesday.

New measures to control disease on salmon farms and a technical standard for fish farm equipment are also being brought in, should recommendations from the recently formed aquaculture ministerial working group be followed up.

The group has proposed consulting next summer on creating a Scottish standard for fish farm gear, including moorings, cages and nets to minimise fish escapes.

They also want synchronised production and treatments to strengthen the industry’s approach to sea lice and disease control.

There should also be an agreed practice of dealing with planning applications for aquaculture projects.

And an international aquaculture conference next summer has been mooted to reinforce Scotland’s standing on the industry’s world stage and provide business opportunities by attracting the biggest companies in the business worldwide.

Environment minister Roseanna Cunningham said aquaculture is a £400 million a year industry that accounts for 40 per cent of Scotland’s total food exports.

In the next five years it could grow by a further £150 million and create 400 new jobs, she said.

Mussel production grew by 22 per cent to 6,000 tonnes in 2007/8, with a further 1,400 tonnes on the cards.


"We will host an international aquaculture conference next summer which will reinforce our international standing and provide our companies with business opportunities by attracting the major players in world aquaculture to Scotland. This will benefit our producers directly by addressing topics of direct relevance to them," Ms Cunningham said.

More information on the group’s recommendations can be found at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/marine/Fish-Shellfish/mingroup


In brief for 24 June 2010

Africa needs help

INTERNATIONAL aid agency Oxfam is urgently calling on the people of Shetland to support their emergency appeal for West Africa.

Oxfam is launching a £7 million appeal to help more than 800,000 of the 10 million people across the region who are facing severe hunger and malnutrition because of drought, poor harvests and rising food prices.

Campaigns manager Malcolm Fleming said: “We are witnessing an unfolding disaster which can be averted if we act quickly. The next harvests are several months away and people are already desperate. People are eating leaves and drinking dirty water. 

“Unless we can raise money for this we will be forced to turn our backs on those most in need. That is why we are calling on the people of Shetland, at a time when we know money is tight, to dig deep into their pockets to help those in the most dire need. Just a small amount will make a huge difference. For £20 you could feed a family for ten days.”

To donate: text ‘DONATE’ to 70066 to give £5; click www.oxfam.org.uk/emergencies; call 0300 200 1999 or go to any Oxfam shop.


New to board

TWO new members have been appointed to the health board in Shetland – emergency nurse practitioner Norma Laurenson and consultant in public health Susan Laidlaw.

Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced the appointments on Wednesday.

Mrs Laurenson already chairs the board’s area partnership forum while Dr laidlaw chairs the area clinical forum.

Board chairman Ian Kinniburgh said: “I know both Norma and Susan are held in high regard by their colleagues across the disciplines, and their input to discussions both at board and committee level is welcomed and valued by us.

“They have both shown their commitment to improving healthcare services in Shetland over a number of years and are well placed to ensure the voices of all staff are heard and considered during the decision making process.”

 

Holiday let tax

AS OPPOSITION to the coalition government’s first budget builds, northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael has highlighted the help it has given the self catering industry.

Mr Carmichael said scrapping Labour’s plans to increase tax on furnished holiday lettings would save more than 4,500 jobs across the UK.

“In areas such as the northern isles where tourism is an important part of the local economy, it is clear that Labour’s planned tax hike would have hit hard and put additional pressure on jobs,” he said.

“The decision to scrap the FHL tax rules will provide the tourism industry in the northern isles with a real lift.”

“It is the private sector that will play the key role in securing the economic recovery and the measures announced yesterday will make it easier for businesses to create the jobs the UK needs.”

 

Last rites

THE SCOTTISH government on Wednesday claimed to have administered the “last rites” to the Tahtcher government’s ‘right to buy’ legislation.

MSPs debated the Housing Bill which will end the right to buy for social housing in Scotland once it comes into force.

Housing minister Alex Neil said: "The Housing Bill effectively means that the last rites have been given to right to buy.

"Over a ten year period that could mean up to 18,000 houses being saved for social renting that otherwise would be lost, the equivalent of three years' worth of new supply in the sector.”

More than 500,000 homes have been sold in Scotland under the scheme over the past 30 years.

SIC offers top job to Orkney chief

SHETLAND Islands Council is trying to snatch their neighbouring authority’s chief executive to help the council through the next two and a half years.

Yesterday (Thursday) afternoon the SIC decided to offer the post of interim chief executive to Alistair Buchan, who has been chief executive of Orkney Islands Council for the past 13 years.

Shetland’s councillors have picked Mr Buchan from a shortlist of three candidates, but must wait until next week to hear if he has accepted the job.

On Monday afternoon Orkney Islands Council is holding a special meeting to decide if they are willing to release Mr Buchan for more than two years on secondment to their northerly neighbours.

One Orkney councillor, Alistair Gordon, said he would be happy for Mr Buchan to be seconded as long as Shetland paid them a “transfer fee”.

Mr Gordon said that the OIC’s current finance director Albert Tait could step into the chief’s shoes in exchange for a payment to cover the extra cost to the authority.

OIC vice convener James Stockan said that he believed that Mr Buchan was probably just what Shetland was looking for to help it with the problems of modernisation, belt tightening and governance that it is facing.

However Orkney’s councillors are being asked to make a “sacrifice” which they have to consider carefully at a time of unprecedented austerity.

“I think he will bring something of a different culture to Shetland which is more required in a time of austerity because he has worked with a much smaller budget and delivered services,” Mr Stockan said.

“We will be losing someone of considerable experience at a time of unprecedented change to public services so you would imagine there would be some sort of cost to ourselves.

“It is a risk for us and we will be making a sacrifice so the question is do we have the generosity of spirit and what can we do to minimise the risk to ourselves?”

One difficulty is that Orkney already has a number of temporary heads of service and the council will be concerned about further instability being created by Mr Buchan’s departure.

However Mr Stockan said that he was very much in favour of the two islands council working together to help each other out.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness said he did not wish to comment on the job offer until next week.

Mr Buchan and OIC convener Stephen Hagan said they would not comment until after Monday afternoon’s meeting in Kirkwall.

Trust money-go-round to save sport centres

SHETLAND could be forced to look at closing two rural leisure centres if funds are not approved at a meeting of the islands’ charitable trust on Thursday.

Shetland Recreational Trust has been left with a £400,000 hole in its budget this year after the local council reneged on an agreement to pay for schools to use its facilities.

The figure is the equivalent of the annual running costs of two of its seven rural leisure centres and swimming pools.

The trust has already trimmed its budget by £300,000 by making 10 per cent of its staff redundant, losing 22 people including leisure assistants in Lerwick, Sandwick, Scalloway and Brae, and staff in its café and bar.

Cutbacks in opening hours also helped bring the trust’s annual bill down to £2.5 million, which is core funded by Shetland Charitable Trust.

The charitable trust has suggested it might be able to step in and on Thursday morning trustees are being invited to approve a one off grant of £400,000.

The money has appeared after another of the islands’ trusts, the economic development agency Shetland Development Trust, decided to donate the surplus on its investments to the charitable trust.

The figure this year is £347,160, which accrues a 40 per cent tax credit making it worth £578,600. The trust believes that in future years the surplus could be worth as much as £800,000.

In the past the development trust has awarded its surplus to the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway and the social enterprise COPE.

Shetland’s elected councillors control the development trust and the charitable trust.

Recreational trust general manager James Johnston said they were about to embark on a consultation exercise to save more money.

“One of our objectives is to go out to schools and sports organisations to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the local community,” he said.

“The exercise will achieve some savings but it won’t be to the magnitude of £400,000. The reality is that the running costs of a rural leisure centre are £200,000 a year and our monthly wage bill is about £250,000.”

Trust must raise £72 million for Viking

SHETLAND Charitable Trust on Wednesday defended its decision to go into private session to discuss the drawdown of £750,000 towards the controversial 540 megawatt Viking Energy wind farm project.

The charity, which holds more than £200 million of Shetland oil monies, owns 90 per cent of Viking Energy Limited, one of the two partners in the development.

On Thursday, trustees are being asked to sanction the final instalment of the charitable trust's £3 million contribution towards developing the project to planning consent stage.

Anti-Viking Energy campaign group Sustainable Shetland said that it did not make sense to hold the item in private since the overall financial commitment had already been made by trustees a long time ago in public.

The trust's financial controller Jeff Goddard said that his report to trustees contained a number of commercial details that were relevant to both partners of the joint venture and therefore had to be taken in private.

He added that in addition a more comprehensive update on the Viking Energy project had been prepared and will be discussed in public at the same meeting.

In his six page report Mr Goddard sets out his first thinking of the financial implications to the trust should the £800 million project go ahead.

He said the charitable trust would need to "de-risk" some of its "volatile" share market investments in order to provide security for a limited amount of lending the trust could be required to do.

Mr Goddard reassures trustees that "the project can be financed", that renewable energy projects are regarded as "good borrowers" and that banks are keen to lend to such projects.

He said he had met with a number of banks, including representatives from the European Investment Bank (EIB), who all indicated that up to 80 per cent of the overall cost could be raised by what is called 'project finance", which would need no guarantee from any of the partners.

With 80 per cent covered through project finance, Mr Goddard said that this would leave the partners to finance the remaining £160 million. Of that half would have to come from SSE and £8 million from the four minority shareholders, leaving the trust the task of finding £72 million.

This could be done by selling some of the shares in the company with a profit, which would mean reducing the pressure to raise a very large sum of money but also giving up part of the potential profits.

Mr Goddard appears to favour three other options, including raising £72 million from the trust's own reserves, borrowing the full amount or borrowing half of it.

He wrote: "At this stage the last option looks potentially the most attractive with the trust borrowing £36 million secured perhaps on the project's income stream alone and providing £36 million as an investment out of its own reserves."

Should the trust decide to put in some of its own money the annual income from investing its assets of around £220 million would go down and therefore the impact on the trust's ability to continue spending around £11 million a year.

Mr Goddard wrote: "I have modelled various possibilities, and the numbers show a manageable situation if I assume steady, average returns from the stock market.

"That assumption is not valid and I believe that trustees will need to reduce exposure to volatile shares in some way.

"Perhaps a straightforward switch to government bonds, but there are more sophisticated ways to de-risk."

In his report, Mr Goddard also reveal that Viking Energy Partnership has so far spent £2.8 million on developing the project, half of which came from Viking Energy Limited (VEL).

VEL itself has so far spent £1.1 million since 2003 on so-called "internal costs" such as salaries for the four Shetland based staff, office rent, travel cost and IT support.

Mr Goddard said: "I am not expecting any further request for funding for the evaluation stage, unless the consent application is referred to a public inquiry, provided a determination is made before 31 March 2011."

Viking Energy Partnership will submit an addendum to its original planning application later this summer which is expected to show less than the originally proposed 150 turbines.


 

Wanted: dead mice

SCIENTISTS are appealing to Shetlanders to collect as many dead mice as they can as part of research into the evolution of the species.

Dr Frank Chan of the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Biology, in Germany, is leading a study to search for genetic clues to the ancestry of Shetland mice, suggesting a common Viking origin.

The work follows on from the discovery by a team led by Professor Jeremy Searle of a shared genetic ancestry between Shetland’s native house mouse and Norwegian mice.

Dr Chan said he would appreciate if the dead mice could be delivered to the Lerwick office of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) where they will go into a deep freeze before delivery to the Max Plank Institute.

“Since Darwin’s days, natural scientists have been drawn by the unique potential of islands creatures to tell us about how species evolve.

“Their very remoteness makes them ideal natural laboratories, where all kinds of fascinating biology plays out.

“Because house mice adapt to all kinds of environment, we believe they represent our best chance at understanding this process,” Dr Chan said.

Shetland has two species of mouse; the house mouse (Mus musculus) is brownish grey all over and usually only slightly paler underneath.  The wood mouse or long-tailed field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), known in Shetland as hill mouse, has brown upper parts and is almost white underneath.

Both species are believed to have arrived in Shetland from Scandinavia, presumably as stowaway passengers in the longboats of Norse settlers or traders.

Researchers in the UK and beyond have already identified the genetic code of house mice in Shetland as an important clue to the evolution of mammal species across Europe.

Prof Searle and his team identified a ‘Viking mouse’ genetic link between the mice populations of Shetland and Norway by tracing the origin of their populations through minute changes in their DNA.

SNH Shetland area officer Jonathan Swale said: “We’re asking Shetlanders to support this line of research into evolution by bringing in any house mice they might catch over the next two months.

“This project has exciting prospects which may lead to new insights into how mammals have evolved in these islands and across Europe through the millennia.

“It’s a slightly unusual approach to be asking householders to bring us their dead mice but it is the most practical and straightforward way of providing the research team with genuine Shetland house mice for their study.

“Anyone who catches a house mouse is asked to bring it to the SNH office in Lerwick as soon as possible after it is caught. We will freeze the mice and send them on to Germany.”




 

In brief for 23 June 2010

Cheaper fuel maybe

BRITAIN’S coalition government pledged to address the high cost of fuel in remote communities like Shetland during the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget speech on Tuesday.

The announcement was welcomed by northern isles MP and Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael who has long campaigned for fuel duty to be reduced in the isles and promised to work on preparing the case for cheaper petrol and diesel.

“While the last government refused even to recognise that this was an issue, the new government understands the problems caused by high fuel costs and are looking at how these can be best addressed,” he said.

He acknowledged the budget was “difficult”, blamed Labour for the state of the public finances being in “a dreadful mess” and that “painful measures” lie ahead.

However he was pleased about linking the state pension to average earnings and raising the income tax threshold to £7,400.

“This is a budget not just for one year, but which sets the course for the whole Parliament. By the end of it, our economy should be fit to face its challenges and borrowing will again be at a manageable level. Many of the announcements today are difficult but they are necessary. We made these decisions because we simply had to.”

 

Grostane fire

A HOUSE in Lerwick’s Grostane was damaged after a fire broke out on Tuesday afternoon.

Lerwick fire brigade extinguished the blaze but not before extensive damage was caused to the kitchen and sitting room.

 

Successful flavour

EVENT organisers and participants have heralded this year's Flavour of Shetland event on Lerwick’s Victoria Pier a great success despite the elements, with more than 35,000 visits recorded by Sunday evening and craft and catering stalls all reporting sales above expectations.

Kevin Moreland, one of the festival's event organisers, commented: "This year's event has, once again, exceeded our expectations. We're delighted with the level of footfall recorded and the obvious interest and support which Flavour of Shetland continues to generate among locals and visitors.

"The packed programme of activities, great food, superb music and high quality craft village is definitely hard to resist.  Lerwick has been buzzing over the past four days and has been the place to be to celebrate all that is special about Shetland."

Bixter hall plans

THE BIXTER hall committee are looking for feedback on their plans to improve the building.

The plans include a new entrance, kitchen, toilets, multi purpose area and bar in the hope of creating a flexible, modern, light and airy building.

However the committee is keen to hear from local people who want to sue the hall and any ideas they may have for it. The plans and contact details can be seen here.

 

Cold call warning

ISLANDERS in Shetland have been warned not to fall for cold calling salesmen trying to part them from their cash to raise money for children’s cancer charities.

On Tuesday Shetland Islands Council said that their trading standards service had received a call from a local business saying they had received such a call, which turned out to be bogus.

The council is urging business to hang up on cold callers selling advertising for publications they claim support emergency services or charities, sometimes suggesting they have a Shetland connection.

SIC infrastructure committee chairwoman Iris Hawkins said: “Shetland has a well-deserved reputation for generously supporting good causes, such as the recent Relay for Life, and we don’t want to see that generosity being diverted into the wrong hands.”

Trading standards manager David Marsh added: “Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to these types of unfair business practice.  We advise all businesses to be wary: don’t be pressured or tricked into agreeing to advertising you don’t want or into paying for something you haven’t requested.”

 

Terminate the rate

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael is backing calls from several leading national charities for a cut in charges that add significantly to the cost of calling a mobile phone.

Mr Carmichael is supporting the ‘Terminate the Rate’ campaign, which is asking the communications regulator Ofcom to reduce mobile termination rates (MTRs) to reflect actual costs more accurately.

At present, consumers are forced to pay an MTR of around 4p/minute when they call a mobile from a phone supported by another network, or from their landline.

Mr Carmichael has also added his name to a joint submission to the ongoing public consultation on this issue which argues for rates to be cut immediately.

“More than 100,000 people have told Ofcom that they want to see an end to excessive charging and there is no reason why MTRs should not be reduced sooner rather than later. Mobile phone users in Orkney and Shetland and across the UK deserve better,”  he said.

Isles firms join decommissioning group

TWO SHETLAND companies have joined a new oil industry body set up to secure business decommissioning offshore oil and gas platforms.

Peterson SBS and 60 North Recycling have both already been involved in decommissioning work at Lerwick’s Greenhead base.

Decom North Sea (DNS) chief executive Brian Nixon said there was a growing awareness of the business potentials stemming from the £30 billion workload of decommissioning work facing the North Sea over the next few decades.

60North Recycling managing director Ian Kinniburgh said joining the group gives the company ready access to the industry’s decision makers.

“60 North Recycling Ltd are a relatively small company and whilst we have participated successfully in the Frigg project and several small scale decommissioning activities it is fair to say that we remain relatively unknown to the offshore industry and its key decision makers.

“It was clear that if we wished to increase our participation in future projects we needed an effective way of promoting our capabilities and membership of Decom North Sea will go some of the way to doing that.

“It will also give us access to up to date industry intelligence and provide an opportunity to strengthen and develop the company by forging new links with other potential partners.

“The offshore industry is also looking for simpler ways to identify companies able to provide decommissioning services and I believe they will use Decom North Sea as a first port of call when pulling projects together,” Mr Kinniburgh said.

Mr Nixon added: “We have been extremely encouraged by the results of our membership drive and the welcome we have received from companies who believe we can make a significant difference to their growth ambitions both in the UK and overseas.

"The latest market projections agree that the first major lump of decommissioning activity in the North Sea is forecast to ramp up quickly within the next year or two.

“This emphasises that now is absolutely the right time for Decom North Sea to begin its work with the supply chain, and to stimulate the preparation, collaboration and innovation needed to secure this vital market opportunity.”

The industry group, which has been set up with financial help from the UK government as well as Scottish Enterprise and Highland and Islands Enterprise, will host a first decommissioning conference later this year.

Glimmer of hope on housing cash

COUNCILLORS in Shetland are “quietly” confident they can break the deadlock on government funding for affordable housing in the isles.

A delegation returned from a meeting with housing minister Alex Neil on Tuesday saying they believed Shetland could win a share of this year’s £25 million funding package for the whole of Scotland.

This follows two unsuccessful bids for cash for housing, initially for £250,000 to be spent in Brae and then a £4.3 million towards a £20 million house building programme in Lerwick and elsewhere in the isles.

Shetland Islands Council housing spokesman Allison Duncan, who described last year’s failure to gain finding as a “kick in the teeth for Shetland”, said he thought Tuesday’s meeting had made “some headway”.

Mr Duncan travelled to Edinburgh with SIC services committee vice chairwoman Betty Fullerton, finance chief Graham Jonston and housing boss Chris Medley.

The meeting also covered the threat to the future of Shetland’s housing support grant, used to on the huge housing debt incurred during the oil boom.

The council has until September this year to make the case for the grant to continue by presenting their plan to reduce the housing debt of around £50 million.

After Tuesday’s meeting Mr Duncan said that the minister had accepted an invitation to visit Shetland in autumn of this year.

He added that he was hopeful that Shetland would get some of the housing cash it had applied for to help with its ambitious and much needed £20 million council house building programme.

He said the Scottish government had received 22 bids totalling £55 million competing for the £25 million pot.

“I am quietly optimistic. We have made our case very strongly, but the meeting was amicable. I think we have made headway.

“The housing minister gave us the assurance that we will be hearing from him in two to three weeks,” Mr Duncan said.

Ends

Clark: Up Helly Aa squad prompted my departure

COUNCILLORS in Shetland have acknowledged that Britain’s northernmost local authority let people down during the past year when it employed David Clark as its chief executive.

However they hope to address any shortcomings once they have appointed an interim chief executive in the next few weeks.

The admissions come in a statement to the Accounts Commission, one of 19 submitted to the local government watchdog ahead of its public inquiry into events at Shetland Islands Council during the past year.

A five strong panel will hear evidence from selected witnesses next Monday and Tuesday at Lerwick Town Hall.

The hearing was called after the council was roundly criticised by Scotland’s Controller of Audit over the way it recruited, managed and paid off Mr Clark, who left office last February after just nine months in post with a £285,000 tax free pay off.

The 44 year old former chief executive has made his own submission to the public hearing defending his handling of his role and attacking a selected group of councillors, particularly Jonathan Wills who he accuses of running a “hate campaign” against him.

Mr Clark says that he felt he still had the support of SIC convener Sandy Cluness in early January, but this suddenly changed following the publication of a two page article about his private life in The Sun newspaper on Saturday 23 January.

The following Monday Mr Clark says the convener held an emergency meeting with senior colleagues and staff, to which he was not invited, concerning a complaint made one month earlier by six councillors about his performance.

He said that he “came to understand that the convener had called the emergency meeting to escalate the complaint into the disciplinary process because his Up Helly Aa squad had been giving him a hard time over the Sun article and telling him to act. He had not read the article and refused to do so”.

He added that Mr Cluness was advised by council lawyers he had no basis to invoke disciplinary proceedings.

“The convener questioned why I was staying and didn't leave, making it clear I was to know that he was amenable to a settlement and that SIC would agree to my legal fees for reaching such,” Mr Clark states.

“I left for home knowing the convenor wanted me gone - because of his Up Helly Aa's

response to an inaccurate Sun article.”

That day Mr Clark says he decided to resign because the impact the newspaper article was having on his loved ones.

“I decided that I was prepared to tolerate this situation no longer. I took the decision that I was no longer prepared to be chief executive of SIC in such circumstances and decided to take action against the council.”

In their collective submission, SIC councillors tell the Accounts Commission that they “acknowledge and regret” any actions on the council’s part that led to the final settlement with Mr Clark.

They admit that best practice was not carried out when it came to appraising Mr Clark when he was in post, and say it was “regrettable” that normal procedures were not followed when the post of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon had his post axed.

The treatment of Mr Shannon is the main subject of submissions from local MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott, who both refer to unprecedented levels of anger in the local community about the council’s behaviour during Mr Clark’s tenure.

Three councillors have made submissions to the inquiry. Jonathan Wills and Gary Robinson focus on the mismanagement of large capital projects, the treatment of Mr Shannon, the council’s governance and disciplinary process. Councillor Gussie Angus has endorsed Dr Wills’ statement.

Councillor Bill Manson has made two submissions, including one as chairman of Shetland Charitable Trust. He refers to the statutory limitations on how much the SIC can pay a chief executive which limits the calibre of candidate they can employ.

The council’s senior management team has submitted an extensive outline of their commitment to improve working practices within the authority and to work with the new interim chief executive.

Acknowledging the “relationship difficulties” referred to in the Controller of Audit’s report, management say: “It is a testament to the commitment of the council’s staff that they are not often distracted by any relationship difficulties.”

The council unions’ collective submission points out that the situation at the SIC over the period in question was made worse by the public pronouncements of councillors.

“The council has dedicated staff who want to provide public services efficiently. To some extent they have been prevented from doing so because of the very public uproar created here since summer 2009.

“It would do no harm if councillors kept in mind the detrimental effect that their

disputes can have on the smooth running of local government,” they say.

Mr Shannon himself submits his version of events surrounding the deletion of his post last August, saying that the entire affair has had a “detrimental impact” on his career “despite the fact that there have never at any point in this process been any allegations or accusations of wrongdoing on my part”.

He added that four months after he formally requested a secondment outside the council, the matter had not been dealt with and will be discussed on 30 June, the day after the public hearing finishes.

Staffing problems are also raised by Les Sinclair who submits that there have been more grievance and disciplinary hearings at the council since 1 April this year than there were in the whole of the last financial year.

“In my view, this hearing should thoroughly investigate this aspect of the Controller Of

Audit's report,” he says.

Anti Viking Energy campaign group Sustainable Shetland warn of the lack of accountability regarding the council’s involvement in the wind farm project and the “irreconcilable conflict of interest” of councillors and trustees of Shetland Charitable Trust.

North Isles Forum raise their concerns about councillors’ failure to scrutinise information presented by their own officials, pointing to errors in reports presented by education staff in their Blueprint for Education proposals to close small schools.

And independent caterer Mike Sage complains about the way the contract to run the café at Clickimin Leisure Complex was awarded.

Lerwick resident Kathy Greaves calls for convener Cluness to stand down, west side resident Vic Thomas complains about the chief executive’s contract of employment and David Clark’s father Ian Clark, the SIC’s first ever chief of staff, bewails the state of the council he once ran and the “sensationalism” of modern reporting.

The Accounts Commission has yet to list the people who it intends to call as witnesses, though it is likely to include the local MP, MSP, senior councillors and senior SIC staff, as well as former chief executive David Clark.

Business collapse mars observatory opening

THE NEW Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) has welcomed its first guests after the official opening of the £4 million facility at the weekend.


Jo and David Sutherland, from Huxter in Shetland, disembarked from the inter island flight on Monday morning, marking the start of a new era of bird watching and tourism on the island.

The opening of the observatory is overshadowed by the collapse of the main contractor, Orkney building firm Andrew Wilson Electrical, which will leave many islanders out of pocket and some facing bankruptcy.

Last week island resident and accommodation provider Kathy Coull said that islanders felt aggrieved that something designed to boost the local economy might now have a devastating impact.

"It is the last thing anyone would expect to happen to such a prestigious project, and we are looking at ways to redress the financial impact."

Chairman of the FIBO trust, Roger Riddington, said: "It is extremely unfortunate that there have been business losses for so many people but I am confident that the observatory and the island will pull together.

"We will do everything we can to ensure all the work is completed and to support the islanders in their fight for payment."

With the main contractor in receivership, a considerable amount of work on the warden's accommodation still needs to be done.

The original observatory, dating back more than 60 years, was closed last year for demolition and re-building work.

Visitors will now enjoy more comfortable, modern facilities with en-suite showers in every bedroom.

The new observatory has the latest energy saving technology with the whole building designed to avoid waste heat.

Former observatory warden Nick Riddiford, who now lives on Fair Isle, said he wished he had such a building when he and his wife worked there in the 1980s.

"I like the spaciousness of it all. We never had enough space to put our archives or even our people, at times," he said.

The observatory attracts thousands of birdwatchers every year, providing a centre for scientists and students for their research on migratory and resident birds.

The project has been funded with a £400,000 grant from Highland & Islands Enterprise (HIE), £1.15 Million from the Shetland Islands Council, £1.9 million from the Scottish Rural Development Programme, SRDP.

Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust has invested £250,000 of its own money and raised more than £100,000 through an ongoing appeal.

Twenty back sovereign Stuart

SHETLAND independence campaigner Stuart Hill was joined by a number of like-minded people when he declared the Sovereign Nation of Shetland, at Lerwick's Market Cross on Monday lunchtime.


The 67 year old, originally from East Anglia, has been campaigning for greater autonomy for the isles for many years claiming that Shetland officially never became part of Scotland or the UK.

Over the years Mr Hill, locally known as Captain Calamity following his dramatic rescue from his sailing boat Maximum Exposure in summer 2001, has been making the national headlines with a number of independence related stunts.

Two years ago he declared the tiny island Forewick Holm, off the island of Papa Stour, as the crown dependency of Forvik, claiming his island had the same status as the Isle of Man.

On Monday, 20 followers read out loud the Declaration of Redemption of Sovereignty and then signed the declaration which makes sovereign citizens of Shetland.

Mr Hill said: "In the UK our freedom has been eroded. The government is owned by the bankers. What we are saying is that it is time that this stops.

"Shetland has the unique opportunity to do something about it because of its history. Shetland used to be a sovereign nation. This has never been taken away and we are taking it back."

Others were equally convinced that declaring a sovereign nation would make a difference for themselves.

Local man Robert Williamson said Shetland was never mentioned as part of the Union with the English Crown in 1707, and therefore couldn't be part of the UK today.

And Richard Hawden from Brighton, who was in Shetland as part of the 2010 Hamefarin celebrations, said the declaration was liberating.

"It is very important for people to have a sense of identity and place, and I think this is a very good step towards achieving this.

"This is about your own identity and where you are from and not about someone else's ideal put on to you," he said.

But what practical relevance does all that have? Mr Hill said he had been challenging the authorities for many years and no one has ever been able to tell him when Shetland became part of Scotland.

He said: "I stopped paying my VAT in 2008 and the VAT people sent the sheriff officers round knocking at my door.

"They handed me the court papers and I gave them a paper saying 'I don't recognise you or the court. When you can show when Shetland became part of Scotland, I will pay the bill. I am happy to pay it but I need to see where your authority comes from’.

"That was in July 2008 and they never came back."

SIC may have new chief by Thursday

SHETLAND Islands Council hopes to be able to announce the appointment of an interim chief executive this week.

A panel of seven councillors met on Tuesday to discuss four candidates for the post and are understood to have whittled the number down to three.

Convener Sandy Cluness said there had been four potential candidates who could do the job for a couple of years.

One of those candidates is known to be Orkney Islands Council’s current chief executive Alistair Buchan, considered by some to be the front runner.

The panel of seven councillors will be making a recommendation to the full council on their preferred candidate on Thursday. If agreement can be reached with councillors and the candidate is willing to accept the terms and conditions the appointment will probably be confirmed next week.

One panel member said that they were “very, very hopeful” that a new chief executive could be selected on Thursday, prior to the public hearing being held into the SIC by the Accounts Commission on Monday and Tuesday next week.

Local government umbrella group COSLA have helped the council headhunt a suitable chief who had experience in the job at a local authority, achieved a best value report from Audit Scotland, had experience working for an independent authority and an affinity or knowledge of islands.

The task of finding suitable candidates was taken up by Munro Consulting finance director Ken Dalgleish.

The panel of seven councillors includes Mr Cluness, Robert Henderson, Florence Grains, Cecil Smith, Bill Manson, Allan Wishart and Gary Robinson.

The post of SIC chief executive became vacant in February when its previous incumbent David Clark departed after just nine months with a £285,000 tax free pay off hacving claimed that he was hounded out of office by hostile councillors and the media.

The interim chief executive is to be appointed for the next two and a half years until six months after the next local government election. His job will be to help the council improve itself after the past 12 months of difficulties.

1,000,000 visitors

SHETLAND News has just registered its millionth visitor this year, almost twice as early as last year.

Now the daily online news service is on target to have more than two million “unique users” by the end of 2010, almost double its readership in 2009.

Since its re-launch in March 2003 Shetland News has been gradually expanding its reader and advertising base. It is one of only a handful of news websites to finance itself from online advertising, rather than being subsidised through the sale of a printed newspaper.

Shetland News is run from three remote offices in Vidlin, Hillswick and Lerwick by journalists Hans J Marter, Pete Bevington and webmaster Graeme Storey.

Mr Marter said: “We continue to be astonished with the massive and positive response we receive for our work.

“One million visitors in just 25 weeks amounts to 40,000 unique users per week, an extraordinary number when you consider there are just 22,000 people living in the islands.

“One unique user represents one computer server, which means a lot more people than that are actually reading our website every day.

“This year so far has been packed with local news, which has helped increase our readership beyond our wildest expectations. What is interesting though is that once people have started reading Shetland News, they have stayed with us.”

Mr Bevington said he was proud to be able to earn his living while working in a small village 35 miles away from the Shetland capital.

“In this age of centralisation it is great to be able to carry on working in Hillswick where jobs do not grow on trees, not that there are many of those either,” he said.

“I would like to think that Shetland News is blazing a trail for remote working, which in an age of rising fuel costs and shrinking carbon footprints looks like the future for more and more people.”

Shetland News has always been ahead of the times. Mr Storey helped launch the website’s initial incarnation in 1995, when it was one of the first online news providers in the world.

"When the Shetland News was first launched online, many people didn't even have a computer and encouraging businesses to build and use websites was a very new concept.

“However the ex-pat Shetland community showed immediate interest in having daily news delivered to them from back home, something that clearly continues as the number of hits from almost every country in the world keeps on rising.

“With the internet finally coming of age in the last three or four years it is now being valued as the primary place to be seen in business.”

Mr Marter added: “We would like to thank everybody who regularly visits our website to keep up to date with local developments, and also our many advertisers. Without their support Shetland News wouldn’t be here.”

Tunnels must wait

HOPES of building a tunnel to Whalsay using public money appear to have been kicked into touch for the time being after a meeting between the Scottish government and Shetland Islands Council on Monday.

A delegation of five councillors and three senior Shetland Islands Council officials were told that no money would be available for at least five years due to the state of the public finances.

The visit followed efforts led by North Isles councillor Robert Henderson to find ways of attracting external funding to build a tunnel to Whalsay.

Arguments over the future of the island’s transport links have fractured the 1,000 strong community for the past six months. The council has promised to make a final decision on whether to build a tunnel or a new ferry terminal at North Voe on Wednesday next week.

The Shetland delegation wanted to know if the government would support them on a long term £300 million tunnel building programme to provide fixed links to Bressay, Yell, Unst and Whalsay.

SIC infrastructure chairwoman Iris Hawkins said the government could offer no guarantees for the future, but indicated that if Shetland was committed to building fixed links they could meet again early next year to pursue long term objectives.

“In the times that we are in at the moment no one can guarantee a whole wad of cash,” Mrs Hawkins said.

“But they said if we’re still of a mind to progress with tunnels we were to come back in January or February to discuss things. I think some of the members felt they were taking us on for discussions for the long term.”

Shetland North member Alastair Cooper was certainly of the opinion that the government wanted to work with the council to build fixed links to its four main island communities.

“They have agreed they will work with us over the next four or five years to put together a case so that when we are ready to build tunnels the finances will be in place and there is a good chance of getting European structural funds,” Mr Cooper said.

“The Scottish government may assist us as well and they are looking to go into partnership so that we can get tunnels for Shetland. I think this is the beginning of a partnership.”