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Council / ‘We must not sit back and allow negative change to happen to us’ – SIC spells out ambitions for next five years

SIC leader Steven Coutts: "The airport is our lifeline link and we believe HIAL should be properly funded to maintain the operation for island residents". Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

A NEW plan detailing Shetland Islands Council’s ambition for the next five years has been approved.

It covers a range of areas including long-standing issues like managing the population and employment, as well as more current topics such as Covid-19, Brexit and climate change.

Council leader Steven Coutts said the actions in the plan set out how Shetland can “remain positive, confident and create a sustainable future”.

The plan was discussed for around one hour at Wednesday’s meeting of the full council, with elected members on the whole pleased to see it on the agenda.

The current corporate plan has been in place since 2015. The plan sets out the “strategic political direction” of the council.

Underpinning the new plan is an understanding that the SIC faces a number of “drivers for change” which need to be addressed.

A vision statement says the plan is based on “working together to create a positive, confident and sustainable future for Shetland”.

Echoing Promote Shetland’s recent ‘island of opportunity’ rebrand, it says Shetland should be a place is attractive to people of all ages.

During Wednesday’s meeting Coutts said it was important for Shetland to be proactive rather than sit back and accept negative change.

“Change is constant,” he said.

“I think the challenge for us is to get ahead of the controllable change.”

Coutts said political engagement was important, highlighting how negotiations over funding from the Crown Estate and the islands deal have borne fruit.

“We must not sit back and let negative change happen to us.”

During debate Shetland Central member Davie Sandison questioned how the council will be able to achieve nationally set climate change targets, such as being 75 per cent lower than the 1990 baseline by 2030.

About half of the energy consumed by the council is through its inter-island ferry fleet, which is ageing year on year.

“It has to be tempered by a bit of reality,” Sandison said of the climate targets.

Lerwick member John Fraser, meanwhile, highlighted the importance of tackling poverty and inequality.

“There is undoubtedly a connection between deprivation, mental ill health and addiction,” he said.

Fraser said there has been a “pandemic” going on long before coronavirus – and that was poverty.

He said “12 years of Tory austerity” has exacerbated that.

Fellow Lerwick North councillor Stephen Leask, meanwhile, said Brexit could “severely affect” the isles’ fishing and agriculture sectors.

In terms of energy, Coutts said it was an “untenable position” that Shetland has high levels of fuel poverty while having an “energy powerhouse surrounding us”.

The plan includes an aim to “support the identification and delivery of a robust, green Shetland electricity distribution grid, which reaches across all of Shetland, and enables further public, community and commercial ‘greening’”.

It added that the council will “campaign to ensure that regulations and arrangements allow Shetland-generated green energy to be made available to Shetland consumers and industries at affordable prices to close the current energy affordability gap”.

“Developing new and innovative arrangements where renewable energy generated in the islands, in particular electricity, could be consumed locally at affordable prices could transform the fuel poverty levels in the islands,” it said.

“We believe that could create a solution with significant economic, commercial and social benefits for communities, business and government and provide a much-needed growth stimulus for the islands at a very concerning transition point for the oil and gas industry.”

Coutts admitted during debate, however, that the regulations around these kinds of projects are “extremely complex”.

“We need to open the can of worms that is the regulatory regime.”

Education and families committee chairman George Smith welcomed the plan and its focus on skills and learning.

The plan says the council “will sustain the quality of learning and teaching in our schools to ensure all learners experience motivating and engaging learning opportunities that maximise attainment and achievement of positive destinations with a particular focus on closing the attainment gap”.

“I think that’s absolutely vital if we are to achieve these ambitions,” Smith said.

He added that “education can be one route out of poverty”.

Smith also stressed the importance of a “one council” approach of collaboration between elected members and staff.

In a wide-ranging discussion Shetland Central member Moraig Lyall also called for the council to place more importance on the climate-friendly nature of peatland.

Coutts replied that he “does not see it as one or the other” when discussing options about energy and reducing emissions.

He said where developments gain consent then this comes with a regulatory process, while historically new industries in Shetland like oil and aquaculture have generally treated the environment with respect.

Senior councillors provided a media briefing after the meeting to answer questions on the plan. Shetland News will publish this tomorrow.