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Letters / Opinion: There is always an alternative

Mike MacKenzie MSP

Here SNP highlands and islands MSP Mike MacKenzie urges Shetland Islands Council to reconsider its plans to close rural primary schools and downgrade the isles’ junior high schools. His intervention comes a week before local campaigners are planning a march through Lerwick in support of rural schools.

On recent visits to Shetland many of the conversations I have had with constituents have focussed around the issue of the reorganisation of education. Parents are understandably concerned at the speed, the scale and the scope of these changes. They feel that engagement from the council could have been much better during the consultation period.

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I am inclined to agree with them because a large part of the point of this consultation should be about diminishing and not increasing public concerns. The very fact that so many people still have so many significant concerns suggests that the council have not dealt with this as well as they should.

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I have some sympathy for the council. Reorganisations on this scale do not happen every year in any area and few local authorities are therefore good at dealing with this type of consultation. I have sympathy too for the financial pressures Shetland Islands Council is under.

Whilst I have no doubt the council are well disposed and genuinely believe that the reorganisation will deliver educational improvement I am struck by how similar this issue is to that in Argyll and Bute in 2010.

The council there, under financial pressure, proposed to close 26 (30 per cent) of its rural primary schools. The plan was of course conceived and supported by the consultant the council had engaged and local councillors were initially impressed by the force of arguments made by the consultant and council officers to the extent that they reluctantly felt there was no alternative.

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Parents formed the Argyll Rural Schools Network, fought the proposals determinedly and mounted an organised campaign, recruiting national politicians and utilising social media. They were able to show that many of the savings claimed for the proposals would not materialise.

I have similar concerns about some of the Shetland proposals and fail to see how money will be saved if many of the buildings themselves are going to be maintained along with most of their associated costs and the council is going to pay additional transport costs for lots of pupils.

In the face of determined and intelligent opposition in Argyll, political support within the council wavered and then collapsed. An alternative strategy was implemented and to date only one school of the original 26 has been mothballed.
My point is that there is always an alternative. Where there is a political will there is always a way. Consultants always know ‘who pays the piper’ or perhaps in Shetland’s case the fiddler, but there are as many alternative routes to educational improvement as there are alternative ways of saving money.

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This issue also has to be seen in a much wider context. Firstly the council should appreciate that their financial circumstances are improving and this is set to continue.

Since George Osborne did a U-turn on his tax hike in 2011, oil and gas has seen a renaissance with hugely increasing investment in fields and infrastructure, much of which is in the Shetland area. Shetland and Shetland Islands Council will benefit from this, as they will from the significant increase in decommissioning work.

The renewables sector too is increasingly going to empower the Shetland economy. Last year’s Scottish Islands Renewables Report, jointly commissioned by the UK and Scottish Governments suggests that Shetland will see 2,900 new jobs in renewables by 2030.

Given Shetland’s relatively high employment this suggests in turn a significant increase in Shetland’s population. Planning for success presents its own challenges with implications of more housing and infrastructure to support services, including education. An increasing population also means a rising council budget both from council tax on new housing and also because the GAE council funding formula is population based.

Lessons have been learned too as a result of recent difficulties, in realising the need to broaden and diversify Shetland’s economy. There is huge potential in tourism, especially wildlife and heritage tourism, but also in Shetland’s unique culture, its food and drink and the renaissance occurring in craft industries.

The recognition of the resilience provided by a broadly based and diverse economy is a real prize that has perhaps been won out of the difficulties of recent years. Taking all this into account Shetland is set for a prosperous future and thanks to the wise decisions and investments of the past it has a world-class infrastructure to build this success on.

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What is of critical importance to this success is Shetland’s unique identity and much of this is about its predominantly rural way of life. Few parts of Scotland have maintained working and dynamic rural communities to the extent that Shetland has. A pattern of ongoing rural services that supports this is essential to Shetland’s continuing prosperity. This brings me back to education for there is a need to continue to provide an educational system that supports these dynamic communities.

Shetland’s councillors need to think hard about the long term future of Shetland and all Shetlanders need to think about the kind of future they want to see.

There is a further lesson from Argyll. It is one of very few areas of Scotland where the population is falling and predicted to fall still further. As a result of this the council’s budget is falling significantly. A large part of the reason for this has been a long-term process of centralisation around the main towns and a neglect of the rural areas.

It takes real courage for councillors wrestling with financial difficulties to lift their eyes to the horizon and plan for long-term success. It requires positively embracing future potential as well as recognition of what is truly valuable and worth hanging on to.

I think and hope that Shetland’s councillors have both the vision and the courage to see this successful future and the key part that their excellent education system has to play in helping deliver this.

 

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