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Features / Skerries under siege

Approaching Skerries.

MOTHER of two Julie Powis Arthur has a number of jobs contributing to the family income.

Four times a week she changes into her fire fighter’s gear to await the inter-island flight from Tingwall.

She is a home help and puts in as many hours as she can to help run the office of the community-owned organic salmon farm.

Thankfully she was able to increase her hours after losing her job as a classroom assistant in last year’s council cuts.

Her husband Ryan works full-time at Bound Skerries Salmon. He has plans to start his own smokehouse using the high quality local farmed fish.

And the couple have just laid the foundations for their new house.

But they say they will leave Skerries if the council closes the island’s tiny secondary department in August 2014.

Both Julie’s boys, 13 year old Scott and Ethan, aged nine, would have to go to school in Lerwick.

Shetland Islands Council says closing the secondary department would save around £80,000 a year.

Like other Skerries folk, 32 year old Julie is passionate about island life.

She says they feel under siege as small island communities are hammered by public service cuts.

“I moved here about four and half years ago with my husband and our children. We wanted our children to have the same life and upbringing that my husband had.

“When we moved here the school was safe. Since then the school has been up for closure three times in the last five years.

“We feel the island is constantly under threat, and is being systematically shut down with the proposed school closure, the threat over the fire service, and threats to the inner island ferry service and the inner island air service.

“There are a lot of aspects of island life that are being targeted.”

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Such views are being increasingly voiced across Shetland’s remote and island communities, added to in the past week by folk in Sullom and South Nesting who have been denied funding for their local halls.

In Skerries the threat comes into sharper focus. Enterprising as they are, the constant need to defend their way of life is having a significant impact on islanders.

John Weston, of Bound Skerries Salmon, said the island could easily contribute more to Shetland’s economy than it already does if islanders were left alone.

But the repeated threats to the school and transport links are grinding people down and make them cynical. They want the SIC to help rather than hinder them.

Skerries’ salmon farm contributes £1.3 million to the Shetland economy, buys in vital services from Lerwick companies and employs seven local folk. Every islander has the option of becoming a shareholder.

On top of that Skerries is home to four whitefish trawlers and even provides some jobs for fishermen from neighbouring Whalsay.

Julie Arthur describes the Skerries community as a spider’s web – removing one strand weakens the finely spun whole, any shock ripples through to the furthest corner.

A perfect example is the loss of the retained fire station.

The community feels deeply hurt by the treatment they received from Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service, disputing claims that local crews refused to undergo training.

Now the station is closed, nine officers have lost their retained fire fighter’s income.

Worse, the 64 island residents now depend on smoke alarms and fire fighters being flown in by helicopter in case of an emergency.

They have vowed not to leave their community unprotected, but setting up their own fire service might not be as easy as initially thought.

Former watch officer Alice Arthur explained: “We are all very disappointed with how we have been treated over this.

“They say that one of the faults here was that there were not enough incidents, but that’s because we care and advise and ensure that there are no incidents. Now we’re being penalised for doing a good job.”

The recent temporary closure of the school added to the sense of insecurity.

The council was forced to close the school in early September after then head teacher Rebekah Gibby walked out following a confrontation with a local man.

Sixty one year old William John Anderson has since pled guilty to behaving in an abusive and threatening manner, however the circumstances surrounding the incident are hotly disputed locally. Anderson is due to be sentenced at Lerwick Sheriff Court, later this month.

The school re-opened again at the start of the new term when former head Sheilagh Smith agreed to come out of retirement as a supply teacher in the secondary department until a new head teacher is appointed, hopefully by the end of the year.

Next the community has to look at possible threats to their transport links.

Council officials travel to Skerries on 17 November to consult on proposals to cut £2.8 million across the whole inter-island service, and to remove the scheduled air service to the island.

Ironically, some of the proposals on the table could work in Skerries favour such as basing the Filla on the island – a long held aspiration – rather than on neighbouring Whalsay.

This could save an estimated £187,000 in fuel and crew time, but would also add £125,000 in overnight accommodation on Skerries.

Islanders quietly hope that such a move would open up the chance to create local jobs and attract new blood to the isle. And they will oppose any attempt to make changes to the air service.

SIC leader Gary Robinson denies any suggestion that the outer islands are being targeted by the local authority as it addresses decades of overspending.

To avoid bankruptcy and maintain some reserves, the council is radically downsizing to spend £30 million less each year by March 2014.

“We recognise there is going to be pain all over Shetland and we are doing our best to mitigate the impact across Shetland,” he said.

“Clearly, in the outer isles there are high costs and it is almost inevitable that the cuts will bite more deeply.

“We can only save money where we spend money, and at the moment we spend money mainly on social care, education and transport.

“We are very much listening to the islanders on Skerries, we are continuing to consult with them. We have taken decisions that will take about £1 million out of the ferry service without affecting frontline services.

“We are moving now into a phase of consultation where we will be coming round to speak to them.

“That is how we best tailor the service that we can afford. We are absolutely committed to doing that.”

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