WORRIES have been raised over the prospect of depopulation in Shetland as further concern is placed over the isles’ economy – with the north mainland appearing to bear the brunt.
Councillor Andrea Manson, who represents the north mainland, said something “dramatic and quickly” needs to be done following news on Tuesday that around 50 jobs were at risk at the Moorfield Hotel in Brae.
It comes as the nearby Scatsta Airport is to close at the end of June after a contract for operating the offshore oil flights was won by a different consortium based at Sumburgh Airport.
Some, however, point to potential job opportunities on the horizon in Shetland in sectors such as renewable energy.
But Manson, who co-runs the St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick, said there are already people leaving the north mainland and Shetland to find employment elsewhere.
“We have to do something quickly afore there is a population decline, which has started already,” she said.
“I know people who have left. There is definitely a start already.
“We needn’t bother speaking about building 300 new houses in Lerwick and doing the Staney Hill and hundreds of houses on the old Knab site.
“It’s pointless doing that until we know that people are actually are going to still be staying here.”
Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s development committee Alastair Cooper, who also represents the north mainland, said the effect of depopulation trickles down through all parts of Shetland life – even to the local shop.
“We’re shedding population as it is, and I think the more jobs go, the more that’s going to escalate,” he said.
“That’s a very distinct possibility.”
Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Shetland manager Rachel Hunter said the organisation was “very concerned” about the situation in the North Mainland and added it was in contact with partners over what support it might be able to provide.
A consultation on jobs at the Moorfield was already underway before Shetland Gas Plant operator Total confirmed that it intends to move its workers from the hotel to the 426-bedroom Sella Ness accommodation facility from the start of August.
A consultation period, meanwhile, is ongoing by Sullom Voe Terminal operator EnQuest on all of its jobs at the site as it looks to cut expenditure across its North Sea operations due to a low oil price and the uncertainty around coronavirus.
Manson said it was “terribly depressing times” – with it all of it happening in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
She supports the idea of an action group – possibly involving Shetland Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise – being formed to look at the isles’ economic decline, with a focus on the north mainland.
“There’s everything else – there’s the cafes, the chippy…the knock-on effect of losing all these jobs is that there’s just not going to be the money to spend in the area,” she said.
“That knocks on to the whole of Shetland – to Lerwick, to the ferries and the aeroplanes. The knock-on effect is quite catastrophic.
“We’re on a really slippery downwards slope and it’s very, very important that somebody starts to listen and realise that basically they’re going to have to start putting in some kind of way to try and protect the local businesses and protect employment on the isles, and at the moment it’s not happening.”
Manson also believes that the Sella Ness accommodation camp being allowed to stay open on appeal after the council’s planning committee originally rejected the extension stemmed from a “flawed recommendation” from the SIC’s planning department.
Planners recommended to councillors that the camp should stay open until 2022 to see if there was demand from projects like Viking Energy, but councillors wanted it closed by November this year.
The camp’s owner Malthus Uniteam appealed that council decision and following a review by an independent reporter, appointed by Scottish Government ministers to make the decision on their behalf, the company was granted its request to stay open until at least 2026.
Manson said the council department’s recommendation “gave some credence to the appeal, because it looked like the planning appeal board had gone against the planning department’s decision”.
Cooper, meanwhile, said the local economy was in a “very serious situation”.
“The biggest problem we have [in the North Mainland] is the Sella Ness accommodation lodge and the oil industry’s desire to use it,” he added.
The councillor, though, pointed to potential future projects like the construction of the Viking Energy wind farm and Shetland Space Centre in Unst as possible job boosts which may arrive in the isles in the coming years.
“If we get renewable energy in and if we can get the energy hub working at Sullom Voe, and all the prospect of power going offshore and carbon capture and hydrogen and all the rest of it, then you could create quite a number of jobs.
“But that doesn’t help today. I have a lot of sympathy [for the people affected] and I would dearly love to be able to do something to fix it for them.”
Cooper also supported the idea of a group or forum to focus thoughts on the situation in the North Mainland.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise, meanwhile, also pointed to the opportunities in Shetland on the horizon, such as those associated with a national drive for net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.
Local manager Rachel Hunter said the ongoing situation in and around Brae is on the agenda for the enterprise organisation.
“We are very concerned about the difficulties facing North Mainland at the moment, which are on top of the unprecedented challenges associated with Covid-19,” she said.
“Both Scatsta and the Moorfield Hotel are valuable rural employers, and recent announcements are yet another blow for the North Mainland community as well as the wider Shetland economy.
“We are in contact with our partners on a local and national level over what support we might be able to provide and on the approach to working with the North Mainland community.
“Meanwhile, anyone facing the prospect of redundancy will be supported through the PACE (Partnership for Action on Continued Employment) programme.
“In the longer term we remain ambitious and optimistic about Shetland’s economic recovery. There will be new opportunities, such as those associated with Scotland’s target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.
“With its strong ties to the energy sector over many decades, Shetland is well placed to benefit significantly from this. Part of our role is to help make sure that happens.”
The impact on Brae and its surrounding areas, meanwhile, is not just being felt by those living in the isles.
Karl Johnson, who works as a public sociology lecturer at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University but was brought up in Brae, has absorbed recent developments with anguish.
He has offered his time to any potential action group to “begin to plan a sustainable, diverse and prosperous future”.
“I might live Sooth but the North Mainland is my home,” Johnson said.
“Reading the news recently, I’m worried about what the future holds for my family and friends – and for the population in general.
“There’s a perfect storm on the horizon: losing Scatsta and jobs at Sullom Voe, uncertainty for the Moorfield and other businesses, the need for more investment and better connectivity; all in the face of the long-term health and social impacts of a decade of austerity, Brexit and now Covid-19.
“If some kind of bold action group could be set-up – and it really needs to be – to properly understand what’s happening to the community and begin to plan a sustainable, diverse and prosperous future, then I would offer my time and labour.”
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