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Council / Better connectivity could already be in place if isles had more financial power, convener believes

SIC convener Malcolm BellSIC convener Malcolm Bell.

SHETLAND could already have superfast internet in place for all if the isles had control of its financial resources, according to council convener Malcolm Bell.

The Lerwick North councillor also said the local authority looks forward to “positive and constructive dialogue” with the UK and Scottish Governments on financial and political determination for Shetland.

Councillors voted overwhelmingly last week to explore the options for greater self-determination for Shetland against a backdrop of frustration over “more decision making being centralised and public funding being consistently reduced”.

Bell believes that broadband is one area where more financial levers could, in theory, benefit Shetland.

“If we in Shetland had control of the financial resources I am confident we would have delivered super-fast connectivity into our community by now, much like Faroe has done,” he said.

Poor connectivity has long been a frustration for those in the more outlying communities, and a frustration at the lack of progress from government schemes designed to bring speeds of at least 30Mbps to everyone has led to Shetland Islands Council considering the options for going it alone.

The Faroe government website says that partly thanks to a “comprehensive installation of domestic broadband cables…fast and reliable broadband internet connection” is available in every village in the country, which is a self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark.

National media, meanwhile, has been rife with suggestions that Shetland is seeking independence from Scotland, but Bell has been keen to stress the motion voted on in the council chamber is merely about exploring options.

“The council now wishes to open lines of communication with both governments in order to address the concerns raised and which led to the passing of the motion,” he said.

“We look forward to a positive and constructive dialogue which will bring tangible improvements for Shetland and surely will be in the best interests of all parties.

“As the strength of vote shows, members are concerned with the status quo.  We know the challenges that as a council we are facing. We also know that there is significant opportunities. We need to embrace the potential opportunities around our shores.”

Council leader Steven Coutts last week made reference to the ‘Lerwick Declaration’ made by then first minister Alex Salmond during the Scottish cabinet’s visit to Shetland in 2013, which stated the importance of self-determination, subsidiarity and local decision making.

“What has followed has not delivered,” Bell said.

“While there has been some minor moves, such as an islands act, it is not the movement that we need. Additional power requests without the ability to generate income to utilise those power is not sufficient. It is also can appear a top down approach, a request for permission.”

Referring to island impact assessments promised from the islands act, the convener said: “The requirement for such an assessment does perhaps highlight that remote decision makers are currently making decisions that adversely impact on island communities. I remain of the view that the best decision are those made at the closest level.

“It is easy to point to examples of what has not worked – broadband provision, centralised air traffic control, no recognition of cost of living in benefit rates, lifeline ferry contracts specified on mainland, to name a few. These are just a few examples.

“It also highlights that the challenge is not just limited to the role of councils; it is bigger than that.

The convener also described Shetland as an “outward focused community who punch above our weight economically”.

“We are optimistic about the opportunities for Shetland,” Bell said.

“We will be seeking engagement with respective governments to understand whether they share these ambitions, and how they are going to facilitate it. Up until now they have not fully demonstrated that they do.”

North Isles member Duncan Anderson, who was among those pushing for the motion to come to council, said discussions on the move have been ongoing “for a while”.

The councillor, who said in his 2017 election campaign that he was “committed to the idea of an autonomous Shetland”, said he has raised the issue “repeatedly since being elected”.

“Myself, Alec [Priest] and Andrea [Manson] have never stopped working on the idea,” Anderson said.

“Recent events such as the Covid response may have influenced the views of our colleagues, but essentially all we are doing is looking at options.

“I think after years of disappointment and failed promises it is only responsible for the SIC to consider all options.”