SHETLAND Islands Council leader Steven Coutts has questioned some of the conclusions of a report that ranked the islands among the worst local authority areas in the country for investment and infrastructure.
The UK Prosperity Index for 2021, drawn up by the Legatum Institute, placed Shetland near the bottom of 379 local authority areas in terms of its attractiveness to investors (361st), the quality of its infrastructure (378th), living conditions (361st) and the openness of its economy (377th).
However the islands came near the top of the league table for inclusiveness (12th), safety and security (3rd), personal freedom (8th) and natural environment (15th), while it also placed relatively highly as 72nd in terms of enterprise conditions.
Overall Shetland was placed seventh out of 32 Scottish local authority areas and 204th in the UK as a whole.
The report, by academic Matthew Goodwin, proclaims to be a tool to measure institutional, economic and social wellbeing and track the UK Government’s progress in delivering on its “levelling up agenda”.
Coutts said the report was interesting but it was “difficult to draw too many conclusions”, and he felt some of the rankings “seem a little at odds with what is happening in and around Shetland”, while others were “not unexpected and areas that as a council we are looking to work with others to see addressed”.
“Overall, Shetland remains a very good place to live, work, study and invest,” he said, “and this is reflected in some of the report indicators which show that Shetland is a safe and enterprising community with a high standard of living and a well stewarded natural environment.”
He pointed to economic investment in a new Scalloway fishmarket and Toft Pier, alongside commitments to a new Cullivoe road, plans to develop the Knab site in Lerwick, publicly-funded fibre broadband in Yell and Unst as areas where the council has “directly invested significantly” in supporting key industries.
In addition to council investments, he pointed to the Viking Energy windfarm and interconnector, the expectation of further oil and gas investment “as the transition to net zero occurs” and the emergence of the space industry, as well as fishing industry investment in new vessels.
“I do believe there is confidence in the community around our key industries, that Shetland is a very good place to invest, and that jobs will be created across Shetland,” Coutts said as he delivered a robust defence of both the council and the wider community.
Shetland’s second-bottom placing in terms of infrastructure is likely to be related to slow progress on improving broadband speeds, particularly in remote areas.
Coutts described “delays and uncertainty” over the R100 project as a “real failure” of the state to deliver high-speed digital connectivity to the islands. He suggested the lack of government investment in inter-island transport would be another factor.
“We are very much looking to press government on both of these and [they] are a strong element of ‘Our Ambition’ corporate plan,” he said.
Shetland ranked 288th in terms of “governance”, but Coutts said it was clear this did not refer to governance within the council itself, pointing to independent audit from Deloitte describing the SIC as “continuing to have strong leadership” in that area.
Instead, Coutts felt it reflected the “erosion of local decision making, and decisions being outside Shetland” pointing to the absence of any “meaningful input” from the isles on HIAL’s plans to centralise air traffic control to Inverness.
“It is interesting to consider the rankings in the round,” Coutts added. “There is no doubt there are challenges ahead but I do believe we can be positive and confident about working with our partners in Shetland. Together we will deliver on the vision of Shetland as a community with opportunities for people of all ages [to] live, work, study and invest.”
The Mayfair-based Legatum Institute is a think tank and charity that styles itself as “promoting policies that lift people from poverty to prosperity”, but it is run by Baroness Stroud, a Conservative party peer in the House of Lords.
It has repeatedly been linked with pressing the case for a hard Brexit and in 2018 was ordered by the Charity Commission to remove a Brexit-related report from its website as it was seen as seeking to achieve a particular outcome, classing it as political activity that infringed its charitable purpose.
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