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Viewpoint / ‘We can always try harder to attend to the common good’

Equalities campaigner Peter Hamilton argues Shetland Charitable Trust’s do-little approach to support in the cost of living crisis is inexcusable, and sets out the rationale for community engagement.

Peter Hamilton.

How is the money generated by Shetland Charitable Trust’s investments to be best spent?  The two most recent contributions from the chairperson of Shetland Charitable Trust, Dr Andrew Cooper, have done little, if anything, to address this question. Discussion on this is particularly pressing given the concern shared by many islanders about heating and eating costs.

That these funds can be used to help out is clear. In its own words, the trust seeks to “improve the quality of life for people living in Shetland”, particularly in the field of “social care and welfare”.
My aim here, after quickly looking at where the trust is on these matters, is to propose an alternative approach as to how some of the funds might better reach those in need.

In his most recent public statement SCT, chairperson Dr Andrew Cooper lets us know the involvement with Viking Energy is set provide a good return.

Charitable trust’s envisaged earnings from Viking wind farm described as ‘significant’ and ‘comfortable’

His comments do nothing to strengthen the rumour that Sustainable Shetland’s judicial review caused the trust to limit the size and nature of this involvement. This and the other historic arguments; that the trust as a charity should have been quicker to establish itself properly and separate from the council, that the public should have had a say on who their trustees should be, that the public should have had a say on Viking Energy, can for now be left to the side.  There will be more money to come whilst Shetlanders are facing the worst winter since before the arrival of the oil.

It is still important to note though, that Dr Cooper is there, along with the other trustees, without the consent of the people of Shetland.  And, more to the point right now, the people of Shetland have had no say on the spending of the cash.  This approach is more than a tad Victorian. It is downright paternalistic. They, in their wisdom, decide how Shetlanders are to gain. End of discussion.

As Dr Cooper let us know in his previous public statement, the £400m+ trust is not a rainy day fund.

Charitable trust not a ‘rainy day fund’

Significantly, he also let us know the trust would not initiate any action in the face of the current cost of surviving the winter (living) crisis.  When did we agree to that?  Well, again, we didn’t.

The trust does not initiate. It simply responds to the existing pattern of supporting the trusts and requests from other charities it favours.  Let’s consider these two aspects.

Shetland Charitable Trust is the mother trust that funds many, but not all, of Shetland’s other trusts.  The pattern of trusts we have in Shetland: the Shetland Recreation Trust, Shetland Arts Trust and Shetland Amenity Trust, was established decades ago.  And, although you may never have heard of it, there is also the Zetland Educational Trust, paltry though it is.

Education can be key to getting the upper hand in the struggles of life, but to gain it helps if first you have financial stability, a warm home, the ability to travel or get online, and food in your belly.

Established before the oil era, Zetland Educational Trust, which could do amazing things to transform people’s lives, is all but dormant. Council run, it lacks funding and ideas. This tells us something about how little thought has gone into the overall balance of the disbursement of Shetland’s oil money.

SCT’s pattern of disbursement through the other trusts is historic. It is therefore unlikely to be meeting today’s needs. The public’s thoughts on this, though, are irrelevant.

Shetland Charitable Trust will, however, as Dr Cooper told us at the beginning of the month, consider requests from properly established charities that can demonstrate competence to deliver their proposals.

In the face of the scale of the cost of living crisis, this approach assumes 23,000 people have the right charities, flexible enough to come up with helpful proposals at speed, to feed and heat people whose costs are way higher than those on the mainland.

Does anyone else see problems with this?

How well will SCT’s unwillingness to engage, initiate and respond help it to “improve the quality of life for people living in Shetland”, particularly in the field of “social care and welfare” this winter?

How well are the needs of those already living in poverty understood?  Poorly, otherwise there would be fewer of them.

How effectively have they been helped to voice their needs?  Poorly.

Are adequate mechanisms in place to ensure they are given a seat at the table?  Are they hell as like.

Local charities have to be polite in how they approach Shetland Charitable Trust. They dare not bite the hand that feeds them. They cannot agitate for changes to the do-little non-strategy Dr Cooper stands for.

The patterns of charitable effort in Shetland are largely the somewhat chaotic legacy of how a community struggled to rapidly adjust to the development of the oil era.  Funding was at first plentiful, then gradually became scarce.  There was a first come first served element to this.

So, how likely is it local charities can work effectively to serve the interests of Shetland’s poorest and most marginalised today, some of whom have few if any relatives living locally to look out for them?

With nothing but appreciation to those who volunteer as Citizens Advice, who support and staff the foodbank etc, needs have changed, and provision needs to change accordingly.

Whose job is it then to make sure local charitable provision can better address actual need?

There is only one body large enough to tackle this, and they cannot do it on their own.  To do their job properly, Shetland Charitable Trust need themselves to be regularly engaging, not just with the charities that seek to get funding from it, but with those whose quality of life is poor and insecure, whose social care is insufficiently met, whose welfare is threatened or unbearable.

Is that kind of thinking happening within Shetland Charitable Trust?

If elections for trustees to Shetland Charitable Trust are not to be the way of bridging the gap between trustees and those they purport to serve, then something more ambitious is plainly needed.

I’m going to step back now and bring in the brains of someone who has been awarded the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for economics, whose ideas are increasingly influential in regard to poverty and how to help folk live the lives they would value.  I hope that by doing so I can show how Shetland Charitable Trust could fairly identify and address shortfalls in the efforts of national and local governments.

Devising solutions

Professor Amertya Sen got his PhD for proving famines in India had not been caused by food supply issues.  He showed middle class hoarding was the problem.

Something similar happens in supermarkets in Shetland when storms stop deliveries from south.  Those who can nip off work and drive to Tesco won’t run out of milk and fresh veg half as quick as those who work shifts and rely on busses, and some leave with pints more than they actually need.

Sen went on to show Thatcher’s preferred economist, John Rawls, to be wrong in arguing that there was an identifiable sum of welfare support that could spare folk from destitution without being too generous.

As Shetlanders also know, the costs of food, fuel and transport are higher in some places than others. We also know some have additional costs due to their individual circumstances, including illness and disability.  Sen therefore argued for well-reasoned targeted supports that many could benefit from and most would support.  As his work has been influential at the level of the World Bank and OECD, to some degree we have his thinking to thank for why Scotland has returned to free prescriptions and embraced free local transport for certain groups.

The types of support Sen, and his fellow economist Martha Nussbaum, argue for are intended to do more than spare folk from destitution.  They are concerned with human flourishing, with folk being freed to live the lives they themselves would value.  To achieve this, they want us to talk about expanding our freedoms, or capabilities – the ability to do things we would all agree we should be able to do, no matter how poor.

And the freedoms they want us to be talking about are freedoms from things like hunger and cold as well as freedoms to do the things we would value, such as the freedom to travel to see loved ones, and the freedom to learn.

Indeed, if we are not talking about such things, Sen would argue, things aren’t set to get much better. Whereas if we are talking about what we all ought to be spared and ought to be able to enjoy, if we get more people participating in decision making, individuals, community life and the economy will all benefit.  How so?

Innumerable studies show the likelihood is that if we leave bairns to grow up in poverty, their bairns will grow up in poverty in turn.  Whereas increasing the chance that everyone around us can live a good life is good for us all in so many ways, not just in alcohol and drug dependency reduction, but in the virtuous cycle of activities people can go on to do in their lives once they have achieved the set of freedoms we can all agree each should have.

So why allow young lives to go wasted, neighbours to go hungry, cold and become sick?

This can be stopped in oil rich Shetland, and should be, for the common good.  Shetland philanthropist Arthur Anderson, who the Anderson High is named after, put it this way:

Dö Weel and Persevere.  We can always try harder to attend to the common good, and it is high time Shetland Charitable Trust did.

So what should our charitable trustees do?  Again, I will bring back Professor Sen.  He is a huge fan of the need for public discussion to achieve fairness.  And, as he says, because the underdog learns to bear his burden well, it is the people who are struggling themselves who have to be helped to become active partners in devising solutions which could significantly help more than those in the greatest need in ways we would all want were we in their shoes.

Sen recognises though that some well-connected folk are pretty good at hogging the microphone.  We can, for example, expect to see public funding for Dales Voe golf course continued if not increased, providing golfers with a nice warm club house to retreat to after their beneficial exercise.  No harm to them, and well done on their cost saving wind turbine, but…  can we please recognise that in maintaining things as they are, we are also continuing to entrench inequalities?

Not everyone is benefiting equally from community spend and many have benefited more than enough whilst others are left behind.  This reflects a fundamental power imbalance in Shetland, which needs to be redressed.

There is nothing stopping Shetland Charitable Trust establishing an arms-length user forum which could hear from those in need, and, with them, advocate for change. This would work along the lines established long since by radical Christian educator, Paulo Friere.  It would ensure decisions could be taken with people, not for them, which has long been known to be a better approach, voicing needs and proposing solutions that otherwise would not emerge.

Shetland had something similar in the early 1990s with Shetland Tenants Participation Forum, when it met with Marjorie Bain, the then director of housing, to ensure the priorities of rent payers were heard.  The balance between the quality of refurbishment and rent increases was struck in discussion with those it matters to most. The bonnie dykes around Sandveien were one result we are all happy with.

Dr Cooper, on the other hand, somehow expects those who cannot easily help themselves to form a fresh charity and then come begging.  I hope he can see his position on this lacks ambition, is unfair and unsustainable.

Whilst we can’t expect what I am suggesting here to happen overnight, an outreach officer could be appointed by SCT to make progress on engaging those in need, and could also support local charities with their efforts in appealing to the trust for support this winter.

All sorts of ideas might emerge.  SCT could end up endorsing proposals which local charities, or indeed community councils, the SIC or NHS Shetland could then apply to run.

It is, after all, the needs of people on the ground that they exist to meet, and this they will continue to fail to do adequately so long as they remain happy to say they have always done it like this, and so always will.

Some folk might want allotments and need help with making the case for them. Hello Shetland Amenity Trust.  Others might want to see the library service lending laptops and supporting broadband costs. Funding and training could be provided from the revamped Zetland Educational Trust. These meet the freedom to escape hunger and isolation by growing your own food in a communal space and the freedom to learn online, capabilities which we might all agree everyone should be able to enjoy.

There could be more immediate and longer term responses for heating and insulation such as our golfers benefit from in their snug club house.  It’s not for me to say what ideas would emerge in what form.  The point is to make sure the thinking is happening, and the structures are in place so that those who have previously been ignored can get a fair crack of the whip.

To plan to do nothing differently, when Shetland clearly faces such food and fuel poverty this winter as have not been seen for half a century, is inexcusable.

Shetland Charitable Trust has to actively engage with the people who need support with their quality of their lives in the field of social care and welfare.  How else can we be sure the balance of the activities they fund will sufficiently favour those with greatest need?

Part of what is lacking is determination to increase public engagement overall.  Progress also requires that Shetland Charitable Trust establish an ethical disbursement policy with the community, one that people can understand and support.  In the absence of such a policy which generates movement towards greater fairness and opportunity, how dynamic, balanced and ethical can their efforts be seen to be?


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