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Letters / Why Shetland needs more powers

Thank you for your interview with prospective Conservative MSP candidate Cameron Smith who has the distinction of being prepared to discuss increased local powers for Shetland; albeit, he appears unwilling to disclose what these might be (Holyrood election: No two horse race; SN, 06/11/15)

You quote him as saying that Wir Shetland’s aim of British Overseas Territory (BOT) – or similar – status for Shetland would be “a step too far”.

My interest peaked as I scoured the remainder of the article, vainly, in search of his reasons for this and found none. Perhaps, we shall learn of them in due course?

Here, meanwhile, are some reasons why BOT status, far from being “a step too far”, is an essential prerequisite for Shetland’s future wellbeing.

In 1970, the UK government handed control of all UK fishing grounds outside the 12-mile territorial waters limit, including Shetland’s, to the EU.

Most of Shetland’s fish is caught in the seas between 12-miles and 50-miles from shore and Shetland fishermen must now fight, flyte and frown for a small portion of the total catch.

And to crown it all, they will now be forced to ferry ashore all whitefish they have no EU quota for but cannot avoid catching (mixed catch), to be dumped either, to fishmeal or to landfill!

From 2009 to 2013, Faroe unilaterally increased its share of the mackerel catch in its own waters by nearly tenfold (claiming the presence of vast stocks), thus initiating a dispute with the EU over stock management of that migratory species.

A dispute which was finally settled by awarding Faroe a greatly increased share of the mackerel catch in EU waters, notably, Shetland’s such that Faroese vessels now reputedly take more mackerel from Shetland waters than our own fleet is allowed to catch!

Not good enough. Shetland needs control of her own fishing grounds. There are but two ways to achieve this, namely, leaving the EU which, if the UK stays in, would require special constitutional status for Shetland; or, the abolition of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Given that a Conservative government handed Shetland’s fishing grounds to the EU in 1970 and that Mr Smith thinks BOT status would be “a step too far”, perhaps, he can persuade David Cameron to add the abolition of the CFP to Britain’s list of demands in his EU reform negotiations?

Many EU countries either acknowledge the CFP has failed or, being land-locked, don’t care. Ninety nine percent of EU citizens would be unaffected by its end so it’s possible Mr Cameron could be pushing on a door already ajar.

Over the last 40 years, more than £100 billion have accrued to the UK Treasury in oil revenue from what would have been, were we independent, Shetland’s own exclusive economic zone. So we might reasonably expect, might we not, to find little or no hardship in Shetland?

Yet we face eye-watering levels of fuel poverty and the SIC, desperate to reduce spending to balance its books, is at war with parents over the closure of country schools. How can this be?

The problem arises because of Scottish devolution. UK government funding is delivered direct to Holyrood, thus placing a buffer between Shetland and the recipient of the oil revenue, the UK Treasury, who no longer control Shetland’s funding level. Well, of course they don’t, that was the point of devolution, surely – what’s wrong with that?

Since 2008, under an arrangement between the Scottish government and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), the latter distributes government funding to councils via a mysterious “formula” which results in the apportionment of education funding on a “per pupil” basis, thus introducing a distribution bias in favour of cities and densely-populated areas.

This has led to systematic under-funding of Shetland’s education system by between £10Mpa and £19.5Mpa over the past seven years. Taking a median figure of £15Mpa and multiplying by seven suggests a cumulative under-funding of Shetland’s schools by £105 million during the SNP’s watch at Holyrood.

This funding shortfall has had to be made good by the SIC cutting services, raising rents and raiding its oil reserves to maintain an acceptable standard of education in the isles.

In effect, these oil reserves, hard-won by Shetlanders during the period of the “Disturbance Agreement”, are being systematically siphoned away to other parts of Scotland, notably, the central belt.

Yet a recent uSwitch UK quality of life survey shows Edinburgh at No.1 due to its prosperity while Shetland languishes at 112th of 138 entries.

Not good enough. Shetland needs control of our own taxation and spending.

News of Wir Shetland’s membership drawing level with SNP Shetland’s reported 300-odd after only three weeks in existence may help concentrate the minds of local parties and candidates on Shetland-specific issues, such as the devolution of non-derisory local powers, in the run-up to next May’s Holyrood elections.

John Tulloch
Wir Shetland