Housing debt: London and Edinburgh treating isles ‘like a ping-pong ball’ as petition reaches 2,000 mark
Two thousand people have now signed this newspaper’s petition urging the UK and Scottish Governments to write off the SIC’s crippling £40 million housing debt.
The latest milestone was reached on Thursday morning, with the tally now standing at 2,025. Six weeks after the campaign was launched, there has been no let-up in the rate at which people are adding their names to the cause.
SIC politicians are growing ever more frustrated at the lack of progress on setting up three-way talks with Westminster and Holyrood to resolve the issue.
Following last week’s contribution from Scottish housing minister Margaret Burgess, The Shetland Times is continuing to seek an interview with chief secretary to the UK Treasury Danny Alexander, who has been tied up with the government’s 2015/16 spending review in recent weeks.
Prior to going into government, Mr Alexander had called on the UK government to write off Highland Council’s housing debt.
But a statement from the Treasury earlier this week claimed that, while Mr Alexander had met an SIC delegation in December to better understand the debt issue, he believes it is down to the Scottish government and the council to “find an appropriate solution”.
A Treasury spokeswoman said: “Since powers were devolved [in 1999], this has been a matter for the Scottish Parliament, like the rest of your housing and local government matters, and it’s for the Scottish Government to address your petition.”
However, one senior council source said members were thoroughly fed up with being “batted about like a ping-pong ball” between the two governments. Past ministers on both sides of the border have recognised the state’s moral obligation to clear the debt – without ever handing over a cheque.
The UK Government has benefited from over £300 billion in tax revenues from the oil and gas industry since the 1970s. The debt was incurred building homes to accommodate a population influx to help get the North Sea industry up and running.
And, according to a Scottish government report published earlier this year, the UK Treasury stands to receive up to £57 billion in tax revenues from oil between now and 2018. As little as 0.007 per cent of that would clear the SIC’s housing debt.
Council convener Malcolm Bell tweeted this week: “In government terms clearing the housing debt would be ‘small change’ but [it is a] massive issue for Shetland and our tenants.”
Last week Ms Burgess appeared to suggest this community was wealthy enough to address the debt on its own.
However, some locally counter that being a wealthy community is not the same as being an equal one. If the debt is not addressed, it is Shetland’s council house tenants – already facing some of the highest rents in Scotland – who will pay in the form of a rent hike of 10 per cent or more in 2014.