The recent feature on Shetland which was broadcast on Radio Scotland was a fair and accurate account of the current economic situation which prevails on the Shetland mainland.
However, there is another story to be told, and those of us who live in the peripheral areas of the county, including Unst, Yell, Fetlar, have despaired in recent years of Shetland Island Council’s failure to address the plight of the outlying communities.
Although Unst, Yell and Fetlar were designated under the Initiative at the Edge project as being economically vulnerable, and a few token gestures were made to address the problems, the communities were not properly consulted and, not surprisingly, the token investments which were made often missed the target.
For example, Shetland Enterprise decided to build a small business complex on Yell at considerable expense without determining the demand for the four units which were made available for rental.
Two of the units have remained unoccupied since the Sellafirth buildings were completed, little wonder since rental charges were exorbitant, and restrictive clauses prevented them being used by tradesmen or for retail!
During the past year or so the long established Shetland Norse factory closed and an increasing number of young people are leaving to work on the Shetland mainland; ferry fares have increased, and couples travelling to different workplaces may find themselves faced with travel costs between £500 – £600 per month – money which many decide would be better invested in a mortgage for a house nearer their place of work.
Further incentive to leave was given by the SIC’s decision to restrict secondary education on the island to S1 and S2.
The two organisations on the island which were focussing with increasing effectiveness on economic development have now closed, mainly because of high rental charges.
The SIC community workers were in a single room office in the local leisure centre which was costing £12,000 in rental charges.
The demography of the north isles is steadily changing: as the young move off, their places tend to be taken by older people, usually retirement age.
The long term implications for social care then become apparent, and, I suspect, finding suitable support for the more vulnerable elderly is already becoming increasingly difficult.
The elected SIC councillors who are determined to indiscriminately implement cuts and knock away the props which sustain the north isles, should cease their macho posturing and constructively address the problems which are facing the local communities.
No doubt they will claim that it is all very well to define difficulties, but it is much more of a challenge to come up with solutions.
They could begin immediately by introducing contingency measures before the damage they are overseeing can no longer be remedied:
1. Introduce a more significant reduction in ferry fares for workers who have no option but to work away from their home island.
2. Buy one of the units at the Sellafirth business complex and make it available to Bluemull Development, and locally based SIC community workers. The rent can be determined at a level which reflects current mortgage charges – and 80 per cent less than what the two offices were costing previously.
3. Start listening to local representative bodies. The islands are not awaiting an economic messiah, but do need access to more effective channels of communication with those in power.
With a proper infrastructure restored to ensure more effective local input, a more balanced approach to future planning could then follow.
It would be timely to remind the more cavalier of our elected representatives that a generation ago, following a real economic crisis, the Yell Conference, which was convened to address the problems, could be credited with giving rise to the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board.
At least in those days, the movers and shakers listened to the local community.
Dr Mike McDonnell
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