Response team leaves under a cloud
By RYAN TAYLOR
A TEAM set up to reinvigorate
the economy in Unst has come under fire from some of the
very businesses it was designed to help.
The Unst Response Team was established by Shetland Enterprise after the RAF closed its Saxa Vord base three years ago.
Community leaders in the North Isles braced themselves for a mass exodus when the closure plans were announced.
Their fears prompted Shetland Enterprise to send in a small team of workers to tackle the severe economic impact expected by many.
In total 72 RAF posts were lost, but 32 civilian staff and 11 contractors were also put out of work.
Not many of those who worked at the base were expected to remain in Unst once its gates closed for good.
Three years on, the response team itself has also left the island – although business leaders say its departure was planned from the beginning.
But not everyone in Unst thinks the team lived up to expectations while it was in the area.
The Saxa Vord complex was built on the site of the old RAF base. Its owner Frank Strang said the complex had been built up and opened last May without receiving a penny from the response team, despite requests.
He said the view taken by the team contrasted with that of the Shetland Islands Council, which was “a breath of fresh air” to work with.
“We opened Saxa Vord last May, having worked very quickly to regenerate the site and to lessen the impact … that was inevitable following the departure of the RAF,” he said.
“Over the last three years I have invested personally a seven figure sum in the site. To date we have received no financial support from the Unst Response Team, although they have been approached on several occasions.
“We did not seem either to fit their investment profile or be able to come up with a business model that would allow them to invest.
“Saxa Vord is clearly a work in progress that will evolve and take shape as we consolidate and perhaps I was not taken seriously by the Unst Response Team.
“Shetland Islands Council, on the other hand, has been very supportive of our venture and while viewing our plans with natural caution have been a breath of fresh air to work with and even thrown in some matching funding.”
Mr Strang said the response team had supported several ventures which was “fantastic for the recipients”, but added the team had been of no real benefit to the Saxa Vord complex.
“For my part our relationship was not productive and certainly they did not contribute to the revitalisation of the site or to the creation of the jobs within the resort.”
The heads of a number of other local business and organisations said their requests for help had also fallen on deaf ears, although they declined to be named.
But while the Unst Response Team has come under fire from local businesses, the woman who headed it believes there is no doubt the island has benefited from its presence.
Team leader Fiona Stirling said the response team had fulfilled its duties and that Unst had recovered admirably well since the dark days of 2005 when the RAF left the island.
She said investment from Shetland Enterprise since the RAF’s departure had led to the creation of nine full time and six part time jobs, and safeguarded a further two.
Ms Stirling said there had also been seven new business start ups.
“We thought it would perhaps be useful to have a small team there up in Unst at ground level,
and to try to respond to the situation that was happening there,” she said.
“It was a time when people were going to be thinking about doing new things, and we offered a point of contact for them. There was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen.
“We wanted to try to do what we could to mitigate the impact of the RAF leaving Unst, and arrange support to make sure people being made redundant had access to the right kind of support.
“Things have moved on. We had additional funds for Unst and invested in a range of businesses and community interests, and that has been very positive.
“The council also agreed to the funding of the new Uyeasound pier, and that has been beneficial
to the community. Things in Unst are looking more positive than they were a couple of years ago.”
Specific examples of projects to have benefited from the Unst Response Team include Lakeland Unst Freshwater Ltd – a company involved in the salmon hatchery business.
Ms Stirling said the company was able to use its £99,122 cash boost to expand the business and export eggs to Chile.
She added £46,408 was used to convert a closed down shop in Haroldswick into the Northern Lights Bistro, which also houses an art gallery.