Review of the decade: 2004
Loggerheads between SIC and LPA over Bressay brig
There was little surprise at the first big talking point of 2004 – Lerwick Port Authority’s decision to object to the council’s planning application for the Bressay bridge. The authority felt the bridge would have an impact on businesses in the area, would cause navigational difficulties and possibly restrict future dredging in the harbour.
The decision was a serious blow for the project, which SIC convener Sandy Cluness described as “probably the most important thing that Shetland Islands Council has ever done”. With land available in the north of Bressay for industrial development and room for “tasteful” housing in the isle, Mr Cluness stated that the bridge would be “a great thing” for the whole of Shetland.
Things looked brighter when the Scottish government announced it would not hold a public inquiry into the bridge project, granting planning permission despite the port authority’s objection. But many hurdles were still to be faced, including getting a works licence from the port authority, and the project was ultimately doomed by the authority’s determination to make life difficult for the council.
Two families who faced being thrown out of the country received overwhelming support from the community in their bid to stay. Burmese mother Hazel Minn and her two sons Simon and Vincent, from Hillswick, were told they would be forcibly repatriated if they did not leave Shetland voluntarily. Tanya Koolmatrie, the Australian aboriginal wife of Lerwick man Davie Thomason, was told by the Home Office that she too had to leave the country.
Thousands of people the length and breadth of the country lent their support to the families’ cause and signed a petition. Thankfully the Home Office eventually saw sense and changed its decision in both cases, although unfortunately in the case of the Minn family it was to take years rather than months.
The second of two anonymous complaints was lodged with the public service watchdog Audit Scotland about the loss of council funds in SSG Seafoods, now put at over £7 million with about £5 million of that being ploughed in at the last minute. The matter was passed on to PricewaterhouseCoopers to consider as part of its audit on SIC financial affairs.
It later emerged that the company had been in a perilous state for some time and that its final collapse was precipitated by the Royal Bank of Scotland which changed its mind and called in its debts straight after the SIC and the development trust had agreed to put around half the money in.
The public money was all lost but councillors decided behind closed doors that there was no requirement for an independent inquiry into what went wrong and who did what. Most of the controversy surrounded SIC chief executive Morgan Goodlad, whose brother Alistair, a former councillor, had been chairman and a major shareholder in SSG Seafoods.
In a tense confrontation with the media Mr Goodlad defended his role in the debacle, vehemently denying that he may have acted inappropriately. He refused to accept that he had to make a special effort to remove himself from situations where he might be perceived by the public to have a conflict of interest. Rather alarmingly, Mr Goodlad also admitted that he did not know the meaning of the seven principles of public life, known as the Nolan Principles, which public servants are obliged to adhere to.
A petition raised by Burra man John Ward and others, calling for a public inquiry into the loss of the £7 million, was signed by 1,800 people before being submitted to the Scottish Parliament. However, the parliament rejected it, advising Mr Ward to take the matter up with deputy First Minister Jim Wallace, who was also the minister for enterprise and lifelong learning.
May saw the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, and four Shetlanders told of the part they played in one of the most significant events of World War II.
As an army sergeant James W Irvine was among the first of the British troops on the French beaches, and experienced first-hand the enormous losses incurred on both sides. Mr Irvine’s army colleagues Harold Bowie and Willie Spence had very different roles, the former a doctor who had to deal with the many casualties, the latter a mechanical engineer whose task was to maintain the variety of vehicles used in the forward push through enemy lines.
George Mainland was actually yards away from the beaches even before D-Day, as part of an undercover marine commando unit which charted the approaches prior to the invasion.
Later in the year Lerwick man Ebbie Moncrieff, a member of the parachute brigade, told of his involvement in the airborne invasion at Arnhem in Holland, entitled Operation Market Garden. The episode was ultimately doomed to failure with 1,500 dead and more than 6,500 taken prisoner, but taking the battle so close to Germany was not without its significance, as the war was nearly over.
Shetland said goodbye to a very important person with the retirement of Sheriff Colin Scott MacKenzie, who headed back to his native Western Isles. Since 1992, when he arrived in the Northern Isles, his dictums had peppered the pages of The Shetland Times, making him one of the frequently quoted people in public life. In a fairly frank interview by reporter Mark Latham, Sheriff MacKenzie said he was much in favour of alternatives to prison, called a recent series of random assaults in Lerwick “about the worst aspect of underlife” he had come across, said he took great pride from his introduction of the alcohol awareness course, while in the civil arena he had found the Sandsound parking dispute case “fascinating” and as interesting as any civil case he had ever dealt with.
Sheriff MacKenzie’s replacement was Sheriff Graeme Napier, who said he was looking forward to the new challenge.
Blackwood Distillers, the company which wanted to make Shetland the most northernmost whisky manufacturer in the UK, was granted permission to build a £5 million distillery at Catfirth in Nesting. The complex would include a circular, “broch-like”, 48-seat cafe inside a visitors’ centre. That all sounded promising, but would it ever happen? Surely it would, because many isles people had invested money in the project. Or on the other hand, maybe not.
They would never learn, would they? Despite the financial disasters involving public money given to fish-related companies, the SIC voted to invest £500,000 in an Icelandic company which hoped to move one of its fishmeal factories to Shetland. The £10 million venture by Sildarvinnslan to process blue whiting could be sited at the end of the disused east-west runway at Scatsta Airport, councillors were told. The venture never happened and the money was not handed over.
Meanwhile, seeking to do what they usually find impossible and save money, councillors on Shetland Charitable Trust looked into scrapping the Shetland Welfare Trust, bringing its care homes under council control, and merging the Islesburgh and arts trusts. Whether either move saved a penny is still being debated.
Yet another gloomy fishy story was confirmed with the news that Shetland SeaFish’s factory at Grantfield in Lerwick was to close with the loss of 30 jobs. The demise of the factory was yet another blow to the council and its attempts to invest in local industry, with £5 million believed to have been put into SeaFish activities since 2000 but only one of its four original factories, Whalsay Fish, remaining in business.
More encouraging, if not for everyone, was a report on the music business in Shetland which stated it was already worth £6.4 million a year to the local economy and the activity it generated amounted to the equivalent of 174 full-time jobs. The study helped justify the proposal to build Mareel, the cinema and music venue at Lerwick’s North Ness.
The first of two new “super-ferries” for the Yell Sound run, the Daggri, arrived at Toft Pier for her naming ceremony. There was a slight hiccup to the event as officials, politicians and invited dignitaries to the event were met by around 70 people protesting at proposed school closures (another story which was to rear its head in future years).
Parents, children and school board members from Olnafirth, Cullivoe, Burravoe and Uyeasound were determined to get their message across with placards, signs and slogans reading: “Why give two ferries to help, then close our schools and destroy our communities?”
The Daggri, meanwhile, at over 65 metres long and with a capacity for 31 cars, four trucks and 144 passengers, was an absolute giant compared to the old-style vessels which plied the route in the early days of inter-island ferries. Her sister ship the Dagalien was to arrive later.
October saw a visit to Shetland by Sir John Mogg, chairman of energy regulator Ofgem, who was shown the sites on either side of the Lang Kames where newly-formed company Viking Energy and Scottish and Southern Energy planned to build two massive windfarms.
The visit coincided with rumours that the proposed windfarms might have to be scrapped because of high transmission charges being considered for generators in the north of Scotland. But Sir John insisted that no decision on transmission charges for Scottish islands had been made. SIC economic development chairman Drew Ratter said the visit had convinced him that Shetland “had everything to play for” when it came to renewable energy generation.
After a period in which Shetland Development Trust’s investments in the local economy had come under close scrutiny, the big business story towards the end of 2004 was the council’s decision to invest again in the Smyril Line.
The development trust invested £4.2 million in the Faroese shipping company in 2002 when it was raising money to buy the new flagship Norröna, at 36,000grt three times larger than her predecessor. While the new ferry brought extra visitors to Shetland during the tourist season, her higher running costs had led to heavy losses over the winter months.
In September Smyril defaulted on a loan repayment to a German bank and the company’s debts were subsequently rescheduled on condition that more capital was raised. The latest investment by the SIC was expected to take Shetland’s stake in Smyril to 38 per cent.