Councillor Michael Stout was adamant today that more should be done to engage with the EU and tap into its massive funding programmes. During his four months on the council the Lerwick North councillor has detected that its present relationship with Brussels is “very ad hoc”.
“It’s something I’m aware of that we could be doing better,” he told the development committee on Wednesday, calling for a rethink as part of the change of culture within the local authority.
Mr Stout was appointed to be the council’s representative on the Conference on Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR). The obscure body meets to discuss issues of importance to remote and fragile communities – many of them former island colonies of once all-conquering European nations.
In the past councillors who sat on the Islands Commission of CPMR were pilloried for jetting off on all-expenses-paid junkets to exotic islands around the world like Réunion in the Indian Ocean and Martinique in the Caribbean. On their return there was often little concrete to report to justify such trips.
If Mr Stout goes to the next meeting it will see him fly to Nicosia in Cyprus, which is still rather nice in November. But he is emphatic that his trips funded by the EU taxpayer must be shown to be “money well spent”.
Development committee chairman Alastair Cooper backed Mr Stout’s stance, calling for a clear agenda for Shetland to be set out prior to attending CPMR meetings.
Warming to the Euro theme, councillor Robert Henderson said the local authority also needed one of its officials to be made responsible for sourcing European funding and to act as a first point of contact for anyone locally seeking EU assistance.
Mr Cooper explained how the council did once have a good grasp on EU affairs but a variety of events, including a staff member leaving, state aid restrictions and the bureaucracy involved in securing funds had taken its toll. To Mr Stout’s delight he agreed that a new approach was needed.
Mr Cooper admitted the problems with red tape had become so bad that the EU became “more of a hindrance than a help” to obtaining funding so the council turned to its own cash reserves instead.
Another new councillor, Billy Fox, called for more effort to be made to engage with all the politicians who can represent Shetland. He pointed out that in addition to Tavish Scott of the Lib Dems, who won the Shetland seat, there are seven list MSPs for the Highlands and Islands in the Scottish Parliament, some of whom are never or rarely seen in Shetland. The exception is Jean Urquhart of the SNP who has set up an office in Shetland.
The other MSPs are Mary Scanlon and Jamie McGrigor of the Conservatives, Rhoda Grant and David Stewart of Labour and Mike MacKenzie and John Finnie of the SNP.
Mr Fox said: “They should be taken to task on that by the council.”