‘The time for action is long overdue’
I welcome and support the Shetland Times campaign which is vital in ensuring the public of Shetland are aware how this debt came about and the negative effect it will still have both on our rents and ability as a council to build much needed new homes. The time for government action is now well overdue.
In the 1970s, as oil was discovered around Shetland, a national drive began to ensure that the infrastructure was in place to exploit potential oil revenues as quickly as possible. These were very dark days indeed: the three day week, oil crises, power cuts and so on. The government saw North Sea oil as one solution. Shetland, strategically positioned to assist, was courted by government ministers. We answered that call; we pulled out all the stops; our islands were transformed forever.
In order to accommodate the influx, the council undertook a massive house building programme, borrowing approximately £50 million to do so. A thousand properties were added to the council’s housing stock in that decade (1971-1981). Two hundred houses were built between 1976 and 1980 in the North Mainland alone specifically to house workers close to Sullom Voe.
Our councillor predecessors felt able to make this unprecedented investment because they were promised (by government after all) that the debt would be taken care of. Reports from the time confirm those decisions were taken safe in the knowledge that the government would “see us all right” – provided we did our bit in the national interest and built the new homes, and quickly.
Successive governments, in both Westminster and latterly Edinburgh have pledged to clear that debt. We were not found wanting in our country’s hour of need but alas, even as we enter a second energy boom, we still wait. In recent years we have been the ball in a game of “political table tennis” passed back and forth between Westminster and Holyrood. The time is now long overdue to find a fair solution.
Last December I led a delegation of councillors and officials to meet Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. He pledged to do everything he could to help us find a solution along with the Scottish government. As a result I expect to hear of arrangements, shortly, for the first meeting between the council, Westminster and Holyrood.
Shetland continues to shoulder the financial burden from its outlay which enabled the last oil boom to happen. The whole of the UK has benefited, many times over, from the sacrifice we made to allow construction to take place in Shetland all those years ago.
It is vital, as we enter another construction boom 40 years on, that the governments work with us to find a permanent solution. It is simply not fair for this small community, and in particular our 1,800 tenants, to be left shouldering that burden.
Lord Polwarth, a former minister of state, visited Shetland in 1973 as part of the government’s efforts to proceed with North Sea oil. During a meeting with the county council he said: “The time for action is getting near.”
Now, some 40 years later, I would refer that statement back to the Scottish and UK governments.
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