I entirely agree with all the points raised by Allen Fraser in his letter A cringing embarrassment of a geopark.
However, I think there is something to be said in the trust’s defence. It was an open secret that Shetland Amenity Trust was badly managed for a long time, and the level of scrutiny by the major funding bodies – Shetland Islands Council and Shetland Charitable Trust was insufficient.
Whilst I worked for Shetland Amenity Trust I was also a trustee for Shetland Arts Development Agency during the Mareel build. The level of financial scrutiny of SADA by SIC and SCT was rightly high, given the challenges related with the build, but I was always conscious that the same level should have been applied to the amenity trust and never was.
Inevitably, the scale of the financial hole into which SAT had fallen became clear and ever since then, the trust has been in a no-win situation.
The problem is that bodies like SADA and SAT, set up with oil money to benefit the Shetland community are now expected to act like businesses and be largely self-supporting. This is clearly never going to work. SADA does have a significant commercial venture in Mareel (though I suspect any profit after expenditure is minimal).
The amenity trust has nothing comparable. It is a conservation charity. It can only deliver benefit through heritage if that heritage is recognised as valuable and invested in accordingly.
I walked out of my job with the amenity trust after nine years with no job to go to because appropriate long-term investment in the geopark was never forthcoming. I felt that nine years working on temporary insecure contracts was enough. It is worth noting that when I did so, no questions were asked by the board as to why someone would walk away from a job they enjoyed (and were quite good at) to join the dole queue.
The sad thing is that SAT has some amazing, knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, but as long as the trust is left chasing its tail they will never be able to reach their potential, or deliver the significant benefits of which they are capable.
For the Shetland Geopark to thrive it needs investment at a level that will employ a dedicated staff member with geological experience, provide some seed corn funding to develop community projects, and a budget for promotion to take advantage of the UNESCO brand in a meaningful way. Without this, it is a non-starter.
Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, current funding from SIC to SAT for the geopark amounts to £25,000 spread across four years. Frankly, that’s a level of investment I could just about manage myself by taking out a personal loan!
Meanwhile, the SCT reserves are sitting at well over £400 million. Just one of those millions would fund a successful Shetland Geopark for over a decade. Given that the trust fund can fluctuate up or down by tens of millions in a short space of time, it’s probably not a bad idea to invest while the money is there.
Shetland always wants to be world class, and if properly funded could be one of the strongest geoparks in the UNESCO global network. Sadly, that opportunity seems all but lost and the amenity trust is doomed to deliver a little instead of a lot.