Having spent our summer holidays in Shetland almost every year since well before the transforming days of oil and ro-ro ferries, my wife and I still see ourselves as trying-to-be well-informed friends and supporters of Shetland, and it is on this basis that we express our concern about the future of some of the outer isles.
In Skerries, for instance, where 60 or so people live, we understand that part of the school is under threat, the local fire service is being closed, the future of the regular air service is in doubt, and the frequency of the ferry service will doubtless soon come under review.
When each public service is assessed individually there may well be a case to be argued, from the service funder’s viewpoint, that the current method of provision does not amount to best value for money, and a reduction in a locally provided service then looks attractive. In some cases, but by no means in all, life on Skerries and other isles may well not suffer directly from some reductions in local service provision, but a vital consideration must be the resulting loss of income to island residents, since local provision almost always means income to island residents and, in the absence of alternative employment opportunities, withdrawal makes them the poorer.
Individual service reviews in Shetland appear to take place in isolation from each other, but their cumulative effect is not simply a reduction in locally provided services but, even more important for the future of each island, a serious loss of income, on which each island’s prosperity depends.
For this reason we would argue that reductions in locally provided services in the outer isles should never be decided in isolation from each other and, unless Shetland’s policy-makers envisage a future with several outer isles deserted, every reduction in a locally provided service should be firmly linked to other realistic measures put in place that are aimed at sustaining the income of the outer isles. For islands such as Skerries the matter appears to be urgent if its future is to be sustained; for at least one of the other outer isles it looks to the outsider as if it may already be too late.
During our stays in Shetland over the years many people have said to us, kindly, that we have visited more of Shetland than most of its residents. With this breadth of experience we would urge all those living on the main island, who form the majority of council tax payers, to acknowledge that the provision of services to the people of the outer isles will usually be more expensive than on the mainland, and that on the more distant isles the range of opportunities for earning a living is far more restricted. In such circumstances support for effective measures, whatever form they may take, to sustain the income of the residents on the outer isles, is an essential priority; and hopefully such support will be forthcoming from the whole community.
Nether Poppleton, York