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News / Seabed cash should aid local industries

Smith Commission convener Bruce Crawford. Photo: Shetnews/Neil Riddell

A CONSENSUS is emerging that income generated from the seabed around Shetland should be used to support the isles’ fishing and aquaculture industries.

Six MSPs involved in the Smith Commission, set up to devolve more power to Holyrood after last year’s independence referendum, were in the islands yesterday to gather public opinion.

They met with marine industry representatives and detected a strong feeling that both the management of and income derived from the seabed – currently handled by the Crown Estate – should be devolved to Shetland.

There are mixed views on which body, or bodies, should handle the income – likely to be worth a seven-figure sum annually.

SIC councillors want the local authority to take on that responsibility, but others have raised ideas such as handing revenue to the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway and giving Lerwick Port Authority free rein over developments within its realm. 

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said: “The broad view is that double devolution should happen. I do not think the income from the Crown Estate should go into general funds so it shouldn’t be spent on things like fixing Lerwick Town Hall.

“There’s a very clear consensus on that in all the meetings we’ve been at today [Monday] in favour of supporting the industries that pay these levies, and we should put that back into salmon farming, mussel farming and the fishing industry.”

He said handing resources directly to, say, the NAFC was not in any way a stupid idea because the marine centre is an investment in Shetland’s future”.

Smith Commission committee convener and SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said meetings with councillors, industry reps and members of the public had thrown up various options.

“We’ve heard evidence today from local councillors that they think the most appropriate vehicle for devolving that power should be to local councils,” he said.

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“We also heard evidence that, potentially, another vehicle for doing that would be through the college, or indeed a mixture of them both in a partnership. So there are three potential models that we’ll need to reflect in the report that we produce for the Scottish Parliament to consider.”

Around 40 people were present at Lerwick Town Hall on Monday evening for a public session with the visiting MSPs.

Participants were split into groups to offer their views on which powers over tax and welfare ought to be devolved.

The Smith Commission has recommended devolving most income tax powers to the Scottish Parliament, along with limited devolution of VAT, while power over corporation remains reserved to Westminster.

Some of those present said they felt the tax system was too complex, while others expressed hope that devolving more taxes to Scotland could help build a more equitable country with less inequality.

Crawford said the committee had got the message that many Shetlanders wanted to see an end to air passenger duty to help reduce the cost of travelling to and from the Scottish mainland for businesses and holidaymakers.

“What was absolutely clear from all sectors of Shetland society is that air passenger duty in particular is having a significant impact in terms of cost of living here,” he told Shetland News, “and they want to see it not only reduced but over time abolished.”

Crawford said many people across the country felt the extra welfare powers to be devolved “didn’t go far enough, but I’ve also got to say there’s been a view from some that we shouldn’t have any devolution of welfare at all”.

Organisations working with people on the margins of society, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Salvation Army, were disappointed that control over welfare and benefits will broadly remain at Westminster.

Scott said he agreed with that view – though he feels there is broad agreement that pensions should remain UK-wide.

“There is a very live and proper debate about how you devolve the remainder of the welfare system, and we need to reflect on that,” he told Shetland News.

“I would go further than Smith as currently proposed. If we’re going to maintain universal credit, you’ve got to make sure the safety net for people in need works. What’s in Smith needs to be implemented, we’re approaching a UK general election, and [after that] I think all of these things would be open to negotiation.”

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