SIC - Orkney & Shetland valuation joint board

Letters / The bigger picture

A second open letter to trustees of Shetland Amenity Trust:

First of all I would like to wish Ruth Mackenzie well in her new role as chair, and I’m glad to hear that trustees are “keen to ensure that all staff have the opportunity to contribute and to make sure that their views and ideas are known” (Amenity trust ‘moving in the right direction’, SN, 19/10/2017).

I have reflected on the action points outlined by acting chairman George Sutherland in his letter (Changes are already under way; SN, 03/10/2017)

As far as I can see there is something fundamental missing. Shetland Amenity Trust exists to protect, interpret and promote the natural and cultural heritage of the islands to the benefit of the people of Shetland and the Shetland environment. Two things should be at the heart of the work of the trust – the heritage and the people of Shetland.

The amenity trust does not exist in isolation. There are organisations and individuals across Shetland – public, voluntary and private – that are key stakeholders, but missing from Captain Sutherland’s list of actions was consultation with the wider community. Without this, how can the trust hope to position itself usefully within the current community and heritage landscape?

This landscape is currently defined by two things:

1. The national agenda of community empowerment, as enshrined within the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act that came into force on 23 January 2017.
2. The move towards growing and diversifying the tourism industry in Shetland.

To start with the second point, tourism businesses in Shetland have experienced their busiest summer in years. Numbers of visitors to Shetland are increasing, due to greater numbers of cruise ships and developing niche markets like textiles, crafts and geology.

Shetland’s natural and cultural heritage are hugely important in terms of tourism so SAT should make the most of the assets it has that can contribute to, and benefit financially from, this industry growth.

I was surprised, therefore, to see Sumburgh Head lighthouse cited in negative terms.

As one of the not to be missed sites on any Shetland tour I have regularly taken visitors there over the past two summers. As well as the obvious pull of the puffins I have found the guides excellent, the café a welcome rest stop, the displays interesting and the staff very helpful in terms of planning a visit.

In addition, Sumburgh Head provides high quality self-catering accommodation, and a popular artist residency programme (a developing trend within the creative industries that can certainly be built upon).

The Croft House Museum is another gem, made by its custodians who are welcoming and knowledgeable. I have been endlessly fascinated by the different things I’ve learned on multiple visits.

These attractions have huge potential to contribute to and benefit from tourism in Shetland, but to ensure that they, and other trust assets, live up to their potential there must be engagement with tourism businesses. An obvious starting point would be consultation with the Shetland Tourism Association, an organisation, which is also working to refocus within the current climate.

Another vital consultee in any development would be Shetland Heritage Association and its members. Small voluntary heritage groups provide information and visitor centres across Shetland on shoestring budgets. The resource and experience they offer to locals and visitors is quite remarkable and sadly taken for granted.

Nearly all these groups are struggling for survival, yet SAT, which was instrumental in setting up the Shetland Heritage Association, and is nominally a member, has had no strategic contact with the group in years, although individual trust staff have supported heritage groups in many successful projects.

The move towards community empowerment is an interesting one. Communities are being encouraged via government policy to develop projects and even take ownership of assets.

The cynical among us might suspect that this policy is aimed at getting people to do for free what others used to get paid for. Nevertheless, community groups across Shetland are developing assets, sourcing funding, employing staff and generally functioning like businesses, with one vital difference. The management don’t earn anything.

As a volunteer in a more than one community group I have been offered more training, on finance, governance, management and marketing than I was ever offered in paid employment, but is this really a good use of my time and that of others?

I am aware of volunteers being ’empowered’ to the tune of tens of hours of unpaid work every week. Could things not be streamlined? Could SAT assist, for example, with provision of services and support to community groups, where their activities align with the aims of the trust, in terms of payroll, HR, marketing, grant applications and claims? Community Groups such as Bressay Development and the Unst Partnership certainly have close links with heritage and tourism.

Beyond practical and logistical assistance, SAT is (currently) staffed by hugely knowledgeable people; experts in their fields, who can contribute to local development projects.

In my experience, people love to hear about the origins and meaning of Shetland place names and dialect; they are enthralled by Shetland’s archaeology, and increasingly the remains of two world wars that pepper the landscape; they are fascinated to hear about Shetland’s geological links with Scotland and North America, and love learning more about Shetland’s wildlife.

If a community group is developing an information resource or an environmental project then input from trust staff could be invaluable.

Unfortunately, I fear that this potential will be lost if Shetland Amenity Trust continues with its policy of job losses without first establishing what its future role will be.

It cannot be possible to justify any redundancies until this is done, and this cannot be done without targeted community consultation, such as I have described.

So again, I would ask trustees to halt the immediate process of job cuts and look at the bigger picture before a bad situation is made worse.

Robina Barton