IN RECENT years Shetland’s own constitutional position in an ever-shifting national context has come into sharp focus.
With another general election round the corner, Brexit negotiation about to begin and a second Scottish independence referendum looming over the horizon many argue that the time is right for more self-determination.
But what sort of autonomy should Shetland be looking for?
Is it full blown independence, or a self governing status with in the UK – or within Scotland – or is lobbying for further devolution of rights as done by the Our Islands Our Future (OIOF) initiative the right way to go?
Ahead of Thursday’s council election we asked all candidates: “Do you agree with efforts to seek greater autonomy for Shetland under the Our Islands Our Future banner?”
Of the 24 responses we received, no one was in favour of less power for local government, but some were sceptical whether Shetland could handle more – while others strongly support more autonomy and viewed the OIOF process as too timid.
Lynsay Cunningham: “Our Islands Our Future is great in theory but if the Scottish Government had not stepped in and called a moratorium on school closures what would our rural areas currently look like?
“If the argument is we would have more money so we would not need to shut schools, well I fear that if the council had money as it has had previously it would still spend it on ludicrous vanity projects.
“Until we can get a handle on the council’s spending and supporting rural Shetland, more powers to Shetland would not provide any advantage to the North Isles.
“Autonomy has been looked at previously in the 70s when the oil came and there were higher players involved, politicians will keep you hooked but I believe it is a pipe dream.”
Alec Priest: “If we could achieve the core aims of Our Islands Our Future it would be a great starting point for securing future Shetland generations from continual cuts and a potential way to start reversing the austerity the islands have had to endure over the past years.”
Duncan Simpson: “I am a strong believer in autonomy for Shetland. I believe OIOF has the right intentions but I am concerned over it’s lack of tangible progress since it was created.
“I also think it’s aims do not go far enough. If elected I will support the efforts of OIOF but I will also advocate the SIC commissioning a study into the feasibility of Shetland achieving self-governing powers and investigating the financial means to back such a move. My ongoing support for Wir Shetland is a result of this belief in autonomy for Shetland.”
Ryan Thomson: “I think OIOF has a very important part to play in gaining more powers locally for Shetland. Teaming up with Orkney and the Western Isles to gain more powers locally can only be a good thing and I believe it stands more of a chance of success when working together with other island groups.”
No response from Cecil Hughson.
Emma Macdonald: “I believe we need to research this issue more as there is not enough information to make a decision. I feel we all need to work together for the future and best interests of Shetland.”
Andrea Manson: “OIOF is a talking shop and the ‘free beer tomorrow’ attitude of government is not acceptable. We must go further than accepting the occasional crust!”
No responses from Alistair Cooper and Isobel Johnson.
Steven Coutts: “There is absolutely no question that powers and responsibilities should be at the lowest level possible.
“Firstly, we need to resist attempts to centralise decision making nationally, or have central government dictate to us. But crucially as well as having increased powers and responsibilities we must be either (i) adequately resourced to do so, (ii) have the ability to raise income to allow us to discharge our powers.
“It is clear to me that a lot can be learnt from other regions in Europe where genuine devolution occurs and in the uncertain times ahead we should certainly be investigating options.”
Catherine Hughson: “In favour of further autonomy, accepting that would be contrary to the current centralisation drive by the Scottish Government.
“Devolving the Crown Estate commissioners’ power to local islands council is topical and would be a good starting point. I am in favour of island proofing as so much is developed for central belt it does not fit with island and rural life.”
Debbie Nicolson: “I would like to see Shetland gain more autonomy and to see the different models of autonomy discussed at all levels in the community; ie at community council and local public meetings.
“A lot of work has gone into Our Islands Our Future but it remains to be seen what level of autonomy we will have under the Scottish Government’s Islands Bill which I look forward to reading.”
Gary Robinson: “Yes, absolutely. It’s an established fact that when decisions are taken closer to the people that they affect then you get better decisions. Brexit and the anticipated IndyRef2 should both provide further opportunities to pursue this agenda.
“A recent report by the Fraser of Allander Institute advocated more fiscal autonomy for councils. This should be followed up as it would allow us to keep more of the taxes and revenues collected locally to spend locally.
“The ‘islands deal’ that’s being pursued as part of the OIOF work has the potential to drive significant investment in infrastructure, housing and the wider economy just as city and region deals have done elsewhere. This process must be seen through to its conclusion.”
Theo Smith: “I would support greater autonomy for Shetland Islands Council. I think in the last five years the council has proven it is capable of running more of its own affairs.
“Our Islands Our Future has achieved a great deal. It has convinced the Scottish Government to appoint an Islands Minister and an Islands Bill is on the way together with an agreement to island-proof legislation which should greatly decrease the one-size-fits-all scenario.
“In particular I would like to see this applied to planning and building standards. I would also like to see Crown Estate Commission powers, recently given to Holyrood, devolved down to local authorities.”
Ian Tinkler: “Four years, 15 expensive summits, and nothing achieved; not a single tangible gain. Full autonomy is the way forward.”
Julie Buchan: “Shetland should certainly be seeking greater autonomy through OIOF, especially with another general election looming that could give Westminster carte blanche over a Brexit deal.
“We need to secure the best outcome for our fishermen and make sure our waters are protected.”
Mark Burgess: “Yes, while the SIC should also (and has) work toward better representation of issues specific to our own best interests, distinct from those of the Western Isles and Orkney and in addition to the work of OIOF.”
Brian Nugent: “Yes. Surely, the three island groups combined makes for better lobbying.”
Davie Sandison: “I will continue to support campaigns to bring decision making powers to Shetland. The Our Islands Our Future initiative will take time but has already resulted in commitments to an Islands Bill and to island proofing of new legislation and many other positive steps.
“I am opposed to any further centralising of decision making powers in Edinburgh and will campaign for powers to be brought back to Shetland in any area where we are perfectly capable of running our own affairs.”
Ian Scott: “I believe that Our Islands Our Future is nothing other than laughable.
“We have our council leaders traipsing throughout the length and breadth of Scotland being patronised by anyone who cares to meet them. I believe indeed that a national newspaper awarded them a prize. What other evidence do you need?
“What similarity is there between Shetland and the Western Isles, other than that we are a handful of islands on the periphery of Scotland – absolutely none.
“That is not of course to say that as an island we shouldn’t have more powers, but these powers have to be democratic and accountable. A perfect example of local power being totally undemocratic and unaccountable to the people, is of course, our old friend, the Shetland Charitable Trust.”
Malcolm Bell: “Yes. Over the last 30 years government of all colours have stripped councils of power and responsibility.
“These include responsibility relating to local taxation, business rates, water and sewage, environmental protection, fire and rescue and policing. Many of what were formerly council responsibilities have been transferred to centrally appointed quangos. This is bad for local democracy.
“Decision-making should be taken as close to those to whom the decision impacts as possible. This is all the more pertinent in Shetland due to our particular remoteness, geography, history and culture.”
John Fraser: “Yes.”
Stephen Leask: “I was at an Althing debate on this issue a few weeks ago and listened with interest to the speakers on this subject.
“Prior to the vote I raised my hand against the motion, which was “The time is right for Shetland autonomy”. When the meeting’s vote changed so dramatically against the motion within the hall, I felt vindicated that this certainly was not the time.”
No response from Thomas Williamson.
Peter Campbell: “I support the participation of Shetland in the Our Islands Our Future approach. There will be situations when the differing needs of the three island communities will vary and it will be necessary for Shetland to work together with only Orkney or the Western Isles and there will be some when the best interests of Shetland can be served by direct negotiations with government.”
Frances Valente: “Shetland has a huge amount of natural resources at our disposal and unfortunately we do not achieve the maximum benefit from this, and so there is a good case to argue for having greater autonomy over this.
“We should not have to fight so hard with Holyrood for decent subsidies to our public transport system for example, as the Shetland economy contributes so much more to the GDP.
“We should not suffer from so much fuel poverty, or struggle to keep our schools open. We should, on the whole, have more money to spend on our public services than we do. I would certainly be interested in joining the debate on more autonomy.”
Beatrice Wishart: “I support the Our Islands Our Future and what has been achieved so far – island-proofing, a dedicated islands minister and an Islands Bill.
“I do have reservations about how far autonomy should go partly because it’s not so long ago the council was not running its own affairs properly. That said, the outgoing council has done much to improve governance and bring about financial stability.”
No responses from Cecil Smith and Amanda Westlake.
George Smith: “Our Islands Our Future needs to see the lobbying work done with the UK and Scottish governments turned into action in the lifetime of the next council.
“Transfer of Crown Estate powers to Shetland, the passing of the Islands Bill and the commitment to island proofing of all Scottish Parliament legislation will undoubtedly benefit Shetland.
“In addition the council must continue to press the Scottish Government for fair financial settlements for the funding of transport and education in particular which recognises the unique circumstances of delivering such services in island communities.
“We must also be mindful of any impacts of leaving the EU and a possible independence referendum and be tactically aware to exploit any opportunities these may present.”
Robbie McGregor: “Yes, I am fully supportive of OIOF and any further development of this initiative – one of the many great achievements of the outgoing council.”
No response from Allison Duncan.