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Letters / You get what you can afford

I see that the debate regarding Shetland’s school funding, and possible amalgamation thereof, is still raging – 11 years on from when I expected it to be resolved.

My first observation on the subject is that ‘Shetland will get what it can afford to pay for’.

This was certainly true back as far as the mid-1950s, the point in time at which obscene quantities of MoD money began to flow into the construction and subsequent manning of RAF Saxa Vord.

In the process, the local economy and culture became hugely distorted and disrupted. The lost settlements of Snarravoe and Snabrough on Unst bear mute witness to what happened to the crofting lifestyle when Money World arrived in the 1950s, and lured the younger generation away.

Fast forward in time 10 years and here’s the oil industry making a new start at Sullom Voe, pumping even more vast and obscene amounts of money into the local economy, and devastating it even further in the process.

Fast forward another 40 years from the late 1950s, when RAF Saxa Vord was drawn down to a fraction of its previous size at the end of the 1990s, causing Unst’s entire economy to all but stall.

Efforts to reverse that situation have all patently failed to cause an improvement in Unst’s situation, and who knows where the funding money for all of that activity went to.

Fast forward to the year 2002, when the quantities of oil shipped from Sullom Voe (as reported weekly by The Shetland Times) were 10 times what they are now, and the ‘oil throughput tax’ of a penny a barrel had almost been brought to an end.

Fast-forward even further in time to Total’s Laggan-Tormore project, which lately is bringing a great deal of money and ‘fly’ labour into Shetland.

This time around, though, Total may not have been caught out in quite the same way as its predecessor at Sullom Voe, BP, who were stuck with a ‘product throughput levy’ of one penny per barrel-eqivalent of oil.

Nobody knows yet what the actual extent of the new levy will be when Laggan-Tormore finally comes on-stream, because it certainly hasn’t been disclosed publicly so far, but even at the old rate of one penny per barrel-equivalent of hydrocarbon product, the throughput earnings from the Total site at Sullom Voe will probably amount to no more than about £400,000 per annum (if Total’s 2011-estimated oil-equivalent throughput of 100,000 barrels per day is realised).

That figure is actually less than the annual rent for the site (which is quoted as being £500,000 per annum), and as a result of inflation since the 1970s, that sort of annual sum is now chicken-feed, in terms of what Shetland has to spend annually in order to remain viable.

Worse than that, it would still be chickenfeed if the throughput levy were to be tripled to 3p a barrel-equivalent, and Total’s annual site rent doubled at the same time.

Overall, it’s not too hard to see that Shetland is now right back where it was in the early pre-Money World 1950s, and that the same immutable rule of ‘Shetland will get what it can afford to pay for’ still applies.

The difference now (as I see it) between the 50 years or so of ‘copious amounts of money from home to spend on partying’ (courtesy of the oil industry and the Ministry of Defence) and today’s situation is that now, the rule is that ‘Shetland can’t afford to pay for what it needs’ – because ‘the money’s all gone, because we spent it all’ – mainly on fripperies such as the Norrona/Smyril Line ‘investment’, Mareel, leisure centres for all, and the various salmon-farm ‘bits of business’.

This list is not exhaustive, of course – but it’ll do for a start.

All the sentimental talk in the world about ‘the bairns’, ‘closure of the schools and the resulting destruction of the communities they’re located in’, and all of the political hair-pulling aimed at local councillors, who (I have no doubt) are all trying desperately hard to make things fit within the possible budgets, when all along they know for sure that that’s not actually possible, won’t make one single scrap of difference to the end result.

Neither will insolent and condescending comment from critics with who-knows-what axe to grind, hacking away on a whim at the local politicians.

In Shetland’s case, it’s not a question of ‘whether’ it will happen – it’s a question of ‘when’. The exact timing of the event will be decided by the state of Shetland’s coffers.

Almost three complete generations of Shetlanders have now grown up under this Money World regime, which was put firmly in place before most of them were born, never mind had become sentient.

As a result, they have never known a situation when feather-bedding of this entire community hasn’t been in place; and as a result of having taken it for granted as a permanency (when it was only ever going to be a short-term boost), they are now becoming upset at the idea (as they see it) of ‘having taken things away from them’.

This is incorrect thinking, of course, and arises from the vast majority supposing (as usual, historically) that something good that was given to them as a windfall will carry on forever, in spite of the fact that they offered no assistance to keeping its beneficial ‘ratchet effect’ in place – and quite the opposite, in fact.

The only thing that could possibly have any effect now on the situation faced by the schools – and by Shetland generally, come to think of it – would be a massive influx of new industry, bringing in new people and their families, and those people having new money earned and brought in from the outside world to spend into Shetland’s economy.

This won’t be the parasitic kind of ‘industry’ that’s paid for out of taxation; nor the ‘toy’ kind, that was highly-skilled hobby arts and crafts activity which formerly were practiced at home for fun, entertainment and pin money; nor the ‘fantasy’ kind, either, that thinks that a major wind farm will solve all of Shetland’s present and future financial woes (when it can already be proved and demonstrated – very easily, using publicly-available information resources paired together to show the unpleasant technical truth – to be incapable of such an improbable feat of thaumaturgy).

It’ll take real, heavy-duty industrial-type activities that generate real, industrial-type wealth to do that; and those industries won’t be built-up to proper viability overnight, even IF the well-capitalised industrial organisers required to do it bother to come up here at all.

Otherwise, Shetland will continue to experience a progressive form of financial hypothermia, where the outlying districts are starved of money (‘progressively shut down’, in circulation terms) as the state of the ‘core’ (Lerwick, where – like it or not – most of the wealth in these parts is generated) is maintained and protected against financial ruin (‘terminal circulation failure’).

The most visible – but not only – part of that change will probably have to be the long-expected amalgamation of some of the schools, whether people like it or not.

Parents need to remember, though, that a bus journey was actually an adventure when they were their children’s age – because it was a free shot at getting out from under a bit of parental discipline for a few hours, and the means to see something other than their usual immediate environment.

In short, it was an important part of their education.

Philip Andrews