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Letters / No gifts to Mareel

Before any of your more irate correspondents have to ask their doctors for tranquilisers, it might be helpful to explain that Shetland Islands Council has not given and will not give any more money to Mareel.

What councillors voted for on Wednesday was the offer of a temporary loan to tide Shetland Arts over its current difficulties, not a gift. Personally, if I could avoid it I wouldn’t give Mareel a brass farthing on top of what it’s had already.

As the person who moved the successful resolution, I made it clear that any money we lent would be at commercial rates and that we would also want security for the loan. Otherwise I would not have voted for the “real Mareel deal”.

Exactly how that loan is repaid is something we can discuss. If regular repayments prove difficult, the council could accept the transfer of property in place of cash. In either case, the council’s money would be returned in some form or another. If we have to sell some tobacco or booze shares to provide a loan, then the borrower will have to pay at least as much as the stocks and shares would have earned us.

There can be no gift because making further grants to Mareel is against council policy. It is also contrary to the contract, or “memorandum of understanding”, signed by the council, Shetland Arts and the other backers when the project began.

However, it is technically correct to say that the “bridging fund” established by the council is at present neither a grant nor a loan. At this stage it’s only an offer. It will only become a loan when money is actually paid over.

Mareel will not get a penny until each payment is scrutinised by the council’s lawyers and accountants. Shetland Arts will open its books to the council and we will conduct a thorough investigation into how this unfortunate situation came about. I assume even our most vocal critics will welcome this “due diligence”, as it’s called in lawyer speak.

Like our critics, I’m sure all councillors will oppose any use of council funds to drag out the various Mareel financial disputes before the courts. The disagreements over who owes what can be and must be settled by independent arbitration, as soon as possible.

I hope that, with a new business plan, Mareel can trade out of its current troubles. Certainly it appears that I was wrong in my gloomy predictions about cinema attendances, for example. The very good figures to date give grounds for a little optimism.

But those who support Mareel will also have to put their money where their mouths are, by paying more for tickets and probably also by becoming financial patrons of the venture. This is a common method for helping to fund prestigious projects (for example, the renovation of the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow and the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh).

It’s easy to call us fools and dupes, but what was the alternative on Wednesday? Let Mareel crash and burn, taking with it all the excellent work Shetland Arts does outwith Mareel? Put dozens of folk on the dole just before Christmas? Leave local creditors with the meagre proceeds of a fire sale of expensive equipment, putting dozens more out of a job? Infuriate the auditors further by allowing not just the £6m SIC investment to go down the drain, but also nearly the same amount of public funds invested by Creative Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Europe? As someone said, we’d have been left with a £12m empty shed that wouldn’t even be suitable for curing kippers.

Those of us who, four years ago, opposed this grandiose and extravagant project did so because we could see a cheaper and more effective way to deliver a cinema and music hall for Shetland.

We explained this in some detail but we lost the vote and, as democrats, had to accept the outcome. We feared then what has come to pass. But there’s no pleasure in told-you-sos. Our duty on Wednesday was clear – to try to save something from the wreckage. And that’s what we’re doing. It’s by no means certain that we’ll succeed but, while sharing some of the views of those who voted against the rescue package, I do believe it was in everyone’s interest that we should make the attempt.

Yours sincerely

Cllr. Jonathan Wills
Lerwick South