Geopark status ‘at risk’ after council halts funding
Shetland is at risk of losing its global geopark status in light of the council’s dramatic spending squeeze.
A shortfall in funding has left the SIC unable to continue to provide its annual sponsorship of a geopark officer – a post it has helped provide for the last three years.
Funding had been due to come to an end in March, but the amenity trust has secured a two-month extension while efforts are made to find an annual £35,000 from within Europe.
The post is currently held by Robina Barton, who was highly praised by trustees during their board meeting on Wednesday.
They were warned not having her in place could leave an axe hanging over the islands’ geopark status, which celebrates the islands’ rich variety of geological and natural assets.
It was hoped “windfall” funding from the charitable trust could help secure its future once again.
All of the 34 geopark territories across 13 European countries come up for review every four years.
Shetland will have to show it has worked hard to maintain standards if it is to continue to enjoy its hard-won status when it is next reviewed in 2013.
Chairman Brian Gregson said he did not underestimate the severity of the threat.
“The long-term future of this whole project is severely in doubt at the moment. The money needed is small beer in terms of real money.
“There’s no doubt the Geopark concept is sound – and it would be one in which it would be worthwhile investing. Ways and means are being found elsewhere, and probably will be found here.
“That doesn’t take away from the fact this is something we’ve been asked to do, we’ve done very well and now, effectively, the rug has been pulled.”
He insisted securing a modest amount of funding would help boost the economy.
“This is economic development with knobs on,” he said.
“Notwithstanding the problems there are at the moment hopefully there is a future for Shetland further down the road.”
Recently installed trustee and SIC councillor Jonathan Wills described the shortfall as a “crisis for a flagship enterprise” and insisted “we must make efforts to rescue it”.
The council, he said, had faced some hard choices, and would do again.
“We [the council] have been told today the cuts next year will be twice as bad,” he said.
“I can assure you that the council regrets this as much as the amenity trust, but the truth is these are circumstances beyond our control.
“If it’s a choice between geoparks and old people’s welfare then, I’m afraid, the old people’s welfare will come first.
“However the charitable trust is strapped for cash despite the recovery.
“The council, as well as trustees of the amenity trust, will support any initiatives – but they can’t do it at the expense of other council budgets.”
General manager Jimmy Moncrieff said the trust had been encouraged to go for geopark status by the council, only to find the money had run dry.
“I think this is a tragedy. This is a council-sponsored project which they came to us and asked for us to co-ordinate and helped progress. Now, having achieved that, there’s no funding.
“It’s a global accolade. It’s a relatively modest amount of money, but there is no budget. We have had words with officials and have been told in no uncertain terms there is no money in the pot for this.”
Mr Moncrieff said the nature of the threat warranted an approach to the charitable trust.
“The development trust surpluses at the moment go to the charitable trust, with no strings attached,” he said.
“Could a request not be made for some of that funding? That’s actually windfall funding, which in the past the charitable trust used to disburse to projects like this.”
That prompted Dr Wills to suggest the trust put in an application.
Speaking after the meeting convener Sandy Cluness said: “It would be a considerable pity if we couldn’t do something about geoparks because of its economic value to the islands. I would be happy to investigate and see if anything can be done.”
Shetland gained its status after being recognised as a geological heritage hot-spot.
Attractions within the isles include self-guided trail leaflets and 52 interactive panels at specific geological sites of interest around Shetland.