Review of the decade: 2009
Something rotten in the state of Shetland
The final year of the decade began with much opposition to plans to turn a former fish factory at Blydoit near Scalloway into a slaughterhouse. Over 80 people signed a petition following a public meeting where members of Shetland Abattoir Co-operative Limited, the body hoping to convert the former No Catch building, were grilled by residents against the plans.
The opponents said the factory lay too close to East Voe’s burgeoning residential schemes which had built up in recent years. Behind the petition was East Voe resident Arthur Williamson, former owner of several fish factories in the isles, who said it was wrong to have a “killing house” alongside a new housing scheme.
Co-operative spokesman Ronnie Eunson said the abattoir would be “absolutely critical” to the future of the food industry in the isles.
The council eventually refused planning permission for the slaughterhouse, and it later emerged that Mr Williamson had his own plans for the factory.
Speaking of rows, a diplomatic one was brewing with the Faroe over Shetland’s lost millions in the crippled shipping line Smyril, which the government there had to step in to save.
SIC convener Sandy Cluness wrote to Faroese prime minister Kaj Leo Johannesen demanding to know how the government intended returning Shetland’s £4.2 million investment in the company, without which it could not have built its flagship ferry Norröna two years ago.
After much speculation, having hinted that he would step down some time ago, Morgan Goodlad announced that he would be leaving the post of SIC chief executive at the end of May.
Having been in the job since 1999, Mr Goodlad said probably the greatest achievement during his 10 years had been staying in position, and he declared himself happy with the way his restructuring – replacing eight council departments with three super-departments – had worked out.
By far the biggest controversy of his tenure came when he was censured by the public services ombudsman, who in 2007 found him guilty of maladministration. Mr Goodlad had failed to declare an interest when advising Shetland Development Trust on investing in local salmon farm consortium SSG Seafoods, which was part-owned by his brother Alistair and later collapsed at a cost of £7 million in community funds.
After a period of deliberation spanning almost 20 years, councillors agreed that the project to build a £49 million new Anderson High School above its existing site at the Knab should move to the submission of a planning application. A few months later they were to change their minds – big style!
In a landmark case at Lerwick Sheriff Court at the end of March, Whalsay fisherman Jimmy Stewart was jailed for 80 days after admitting bludgeoning 21 grey seal pups to death with a fence post.
A first-time offender, Stewart was caught after Scottish Natural Heritage employees saw him killing the pups as they passed by the remote isle of East Linga, where he keeps sheep. The case caused uproar in the world of seal protection activists, and it emerged that Stewart had received hate mail along with a death threat letter.
However, many people in Whalsay were willing to vouch for Stewart’s good character, and his solicitor, Tommy Allan, summed up by saying: “Mr Stewart has done a bad thing, but I would submit that he is not necessarily a bad man.”
The SIC was heavily criticised in April by Audit Scotland, the country’s financial watchdog, for failing to manage its resources properly. The council was warned that if it did not cut back sharply on the use of reserve funds for spending on capital projects and services, many projects would not be achieved.
A study by Audit Scotland pointed to a list of projects on the capital programme in the next four years worth more than £112 million, while councillors had indicated that they wished to spend £70 million in the next two years alone, when the amount available was only just over £33 million.
The figures took no account of the new £49 million Anderson High School, the subject of ongoing debate about whether it could be paid for by the charitable trust and leased back to the council at around £5 million a year, or paid for directly from the reserves.
In the middle of May the SIC appointed a new chief executive to replace the departing Morgan Goodlad. He was David Clark, son of former chief executive Ian Clark, who had successfully advised the council during the oil negotiations back in the 1970s.
Mr Clark immediately promised to try and cultivate a “go-getter, entrepreneurial spirit” in the authority, which had a recent history of prevarication on many issues.
One of the decisions the council did finally make was to go ahead with the cinema and music centre Mareel, and it was a happy moment when convener Sandy Cluness donned a hard hat and stepped into a digger to cut the first turf at the site of the new building at Lerwick’s North Ness.
Viking Energy ruled out the possibility of a referendum on the giant windfarm in the central Mainland, saying islanders could make their views known to councillors instead, so The Shetland Times decided to conduct its own telephone poll to test public opinion on the proposed project.
Prevarication. Remember that word? Well the big news in June was that the council decided to delay the new Anderson High School by ordering yet another review into the site. The previously looked-at lower Staney Hill site was now back on the agenda, after councillor Jonathan Wills successfully argued that the school could be built there just as quickly and significantly cheaper. Mmmm.
Shetland’s sportsmen and women were off to the island games again, this time in the Finnish island of Åland. Medals were fairly scarce but there was success again for archer Billy Finnie, striking gold in the men’s compound event, along with an unexpected, but very welcome victory by 16-year-old athlete Emma Leask in the women’s 800 metres.
Staying with sport the Shetland men’s football team recorded a 1-0 home win over Orkney, completing a near-perfect record during the decade, the only blip coming in 2004. The women’s hockey team came close to making it a double success, with the 2-1 defeat one of the best results for some time and many hoping it would be the catalyst for success in the coming years.
The national Shetland Pony Stud Book Society breed show came home for the first time, as part of the Shetland Pony Festival in August.
In a surprise move, Lerwick North councillor Allan Wishart took on the role of project co-ordinator for Viking Energy for one year, having previously been a director of the company.
Mr Wishart stepped down from his £4,000 a year chairmanship of the SIC infrastructure committee, as well as resigning his chairmanship of local transport agency ZetTrans and giving up his appointment as a trustee of Shetland Charitable Trust, owners of the council’s 90 per cent stake in Viking Energy Ltd. He would not disclose the salary which came with his new position, but did say it was lower than, and “nowhere near”, an estimated £70,000.
An independent review by business consultant Andrew Laidler found that shifting the Anderson High School to the Lower Staney Hill could add between £6-10 million to the existing price tag for the Knab location, but the new site was superior in every other area.
There had been some criticism over the appointment of Mr Laidler, who got the job by virtue of being a business associate of SIC chief executive David Clark, but Mr Clark said he had the backing of senior councillors.
Just over a week later the council finally settled on the Lower Staney Hill site, when a motion from Jonathan Wills was passed by the casting vote of services committee chairman Gussie Angus. A covering report by Mr Clark suggested that it could still be feasible to have the school open by 2013, the same date projected for the Knab location.
Mr Clark was in the news again the following week when it emerged that he had decided to “delete”
the post of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon, a position created by his predecessor Morgan Goodlad.
The trade union Unison was up in arms over the move, while councillors such as Dr Wills, Allison Duncan and Gary Robinson also criticised the fact that Mr Shannon had been given no warning that his position was in danger.
Mr Shannon was, incidentally, the reserve candidate for the chief executive appointment a few months earlier.
Worse was to come for Mr Clark when Dr Wills alleged that he had been threatened by the chief executive during a phone call, and also that Mr Clark and Mr Laidler had been drinking in Mr Clark’s office in the Town Hall. A police complaint made by Dr Wills was dropped because of insufficient evidence.
The matter refused to go away, however, and an independent lawyer was brought in to investigate the allegations, with Mr Clark remaining on holiday while the situation was ongoing.
There was some support among councillors for Mr Clark, with one saying he was concerned that the chief executive had been “tried and convicted” before his guilt or innocence had been determined, and another urging Dr Wills to end his spat.
Dr Wills refused to budge, however, and was reported by senior councillors and officials to the Standards Commission for Scotland over an alleged breach of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct. His reaction was to describe the council as “shambolic and leaderless”.
On the subject of leadership, convener Sandy Cluness revealed that he would be retiring at the next council elections in 2012. That was not enough for some though, and a small group of councillors, led by Shetland West member Gary Robinson, pledged to put a motion before the next Full Council meeting calling for elected office holders to relinquish their positions and stand again.
The idea never materialised, with Mr Robinson saying that it was not the correct time to make such a move, but a straw poll suggested that the rebels would have had difficulty gaining the support of seven councillors required for a motion, and even if they managed it there would have been little chance of pushing the proposal through.
The year was to end with Mr Clark still in position, Mr Shannon still not back at work and Dr Wills still not happy.
The results of the opinion poll conducted by The Shetland Times on the Viking Energy windfarm were announced in the middle of September – and made interesting reading. The poll revealed that 48 per cent of those contacted were against the proposal, with 31 per cent in favour and 21 per cent undecided.
Younger generations were much more in favour of the windfarm, with 52 per cent of those aged between 16 and 24 saying yes, while the situation was reversed by their elders, 61 per cent in the 65-74 age bracket giving the plan the thumbs down.
The merits of the involvement of Shetland Charitable Trust were not so clear, with 39 per cent saying it would be a good investment and 38 saying it would be a bad one, but 61 per cent felt that councillor-trustees would not be able to serve the interests of the community when making decisions on the project.
There was little doubt about one issue, however, with an average of 66 per cent, including all age groups, saying that the massive turbines would have a negative effect on the Shetland landscape.
A new group calling itself Windfarm Supporters was shortly to be formed, comprising prominent business people and others.
The dreaded words “school closures” were to return towards the end of the year, when the council announced a whole raft of proposals, including the axing of various primary schools along with secondaries in Baltasound, Scalloway and Skerries. Presumably the reasoning was to make the threat as bad as possible initially, so when they did materialise the closures would not feel so bad after all. Maybe 2010 will be decision day at last.
The decade ended with more bad news for the council, with it having to write off nearly £400,000 in debts owed by knitwear company Judane. Councillor Caroline Miller, a “consultant” for Judane, failed to explain why £21,500 in rent payments for the Judane factory leased to businessman Chris Hodge were channelled to her company Northern Isles Knitwear, which is not listed on her register of members’ interests.
There was better news on the agricultural front with the green light for the long-awaited slaughterhouse, to be built next to the marts north of Lerwick.