By NEIL RIDDELL
THE FETLAR community is calling for action, not words, after the SIC agreed to set up a taskforce in a last-ditch effort to avert a steep population decline in an island which has lost half of its people in the past decade.
Fetlar was home to around 100 people just 10 years ago, but that number has dwindled to around 50 today and there are fears the island could be facing a terminal decline. The council’s development committee last week agreed to establish the group to find ways of helping the community after a report was put before members stating that depopulation is now approaching a “critical” level, with the demographic structure of the remaining population ageing “significantly”.
Fetlar is geographically twice the size of Whalsay, which boasts a population of over 1,000, and islanders have long argued for a breakwater to be built, having been told during the 1990s that they would be getting one before those plans were shelved. It is the only inhabited island in Shetland that does not have sheltered berthing for boats, a situation branded “a disgrace” by North Isles councillor Robert Henderson.
There remains some degree of scepticism within the community, which was promised a pier facility, a slipway for small boats and a long breakwater at Hamars Ness which could have sheltered any ferry even in stormy winter weather. They ended up with only a ferry terminal, which chairman of the Fetlar Community Council James Rendall blames for the island’s recent decline in fortunes.
“I certainly think it would have made a difference,” he said. “If we’d had the opportunity, we would have said first build a breakwater, with whatever you have left build a terminal. Had there been the opportunities for fishing, tourism – you can never really say [how big an effect it would have had] but the opportunity was never there. [The breakwater] is the main thing – if that doesn’t come it doesn’t give you a chance to explore all the gear that might come from that.”
The breakwater project is now listed under the capital programme but is still awaiting a funding package, with the total cost estimated at almost £3m. ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart said the transport partnership was seeking funding of around £900,000 from external sources including Europe, particularly for the berthing face, before the project could start moving up the list.
Mr Rendall wrote to SIC chief executive Morgan Goodlad earlier this month to say he was pleased the breakwater has been included in the capital programme list but urged the council to consider giving it a higher priority than its current place on the list, at number 37.
Mr Rendall, who works on the lifeline ferry, told The Shetland Times this week that although last week’s council discussions seemed to be “all very positive”, the people of Fetlar are sick of endless cycles of meetings and no action, but he does sense that there could now be enough goodwill from the Town Hall chamber that something concrete may come from the working group.
“The realisation is starting to hit that without doing something within the next five to ten years, there’ll be nobody here in Fetlar,” he said. “[Unless something is done] we’ll be the last ones here, my generation, the folk that’s now [in their 50s] – that’ll be the last folk that’s going to be on the isle.”
North Isles councillor Laura Baisley, who used to live in Fetlar and still has a property there, said it was vital to find ways of attracting new people to the island.
“It’s a bit late in the day, but the provision of a breakwater is essential because that enables the ferry to be berthed in Fetlar,” she said. “It is such a beautiful island, a fantastic place to live. It’s green, it’s got wonderful beaches, it’s got everything. People have tried hard over the years to make it work but obviously one of the biggest needs is new population.”
After Fetlar was featured in the BBC’s One Show last summer, hundreds of people expressed an interest in coming to live there, but Ms Baisley said its timing had been unfortunate because there was no mechanism to deal with the influx of demand, meaning the community council clerk simply had to refer interested parties to the council’s housing department.
She continued: “There are people willing to look at making land available, but they’re not gonna give up land willy-nilly. There needs to be a sort of filter process – obviously the smaller the community the more dangerous it is to introduce people that perhaps may come with a very optimistic, rose-coloured view of what island living is and then feel very disillusioned after two years.”
A Fetlar Development Group has been set up to work towards the creation of a long-term sustainable economy for the island. In Mr Rendall’s letter to Mr Goodlad, he wrote: “The community is aware that the breakwater alone will not solve Fetlar’s problems but it will go a very long way towards breaking the vicious circle that currently exists, where many development projects are unviable and relocation to the isle is unattractive or unfeasible for new residents, due to the restricted and, at times, unreliable service.”
He outlined possible ways in which a berthing facility could improve the island’s fortunes, by allowing the community – which has successfully operated a cafe this summer – to tap into the thousands of cruise ship visitors Shetland receives each year. Mr Rendall said the cafe could, in the future, serve seafood from a Fetlar fishing boat, while allowing the ferry to berth at Fetlar would enable an early service to be offered to allow residents to have the option to commute to the mainland and Lerwick.
“In the past year, several recent incomers have left the island as commuting to the mainland proved to be unfeasible. Even a new resident with a good business plan would need to earn money elsewhere while the business became established.”
The only fisheries-related work in Fetlar is two part-time posts working with a small smolt-rearing cage on a fresh water loch. Agriculture is still an important part of the community but over the last 50 years it has become increasingly difficult to make a full-time living in crofting, while the island’s shop now only opens for two hours each day.
Another impending problem is that nine-year-old Ellis Thomason will leave the school in two years’ time and, with no younger children or people likely to have children in the near future, the primary school is set to be closed indefinitely from 2010, further reducing the already limited employment opportunities in Fetlar.
But Ms Baisley said the mood among the people of Fetlar was positive and that instead of feeling sorry for themselves people were trying to find ways of moving forward. “The important thing for the islands, and they [are] doing this, is to behave in a confident, optimistic way, because that makes them an attractive venue for people either to go and live or start a business or a new enterprise.
“A lot of the [people] are concerned, particularly as a lot of them rely on agriculture. Traditionally that’s how people lived, nowadays people have a higher level of expectation of income, but if we got the infrastructure both of the breakwater and improved telecoms, that could be the key.”
The council’s head of business development Douglas Irvine told members at last Thursday’s development committee meeting that action on Fetlar was now urgent. “The time has come for coordinated action,” he said. “There is a short window of opportunity to turn the situation around. If no progress is made during the next five years the situation in Fetlar could be very poor indeed.”
SIC convener Sandy Cluness said the island was a “special case” with problems running “much deeper” than either Papa Stour or Foula. He pointed out that it contains some very fertile land and said that its declining population should be of concern to everybody. “I am conscious that the population has become too small [for the community] to turn it around themselves,” he said. “They need people, not money.”
Fetlar residents have long seen the community as the “poor relation” among Shetland’s small islands, ignored by those in the Town Hall, but at last week’s meeting there seemed to be a clear appetite among councillors to try to do something to help the island.
With the debate a prequel to discussions which led to the approval of another £1m of council money towards Lerwick’s cinema and music venue, opponents of the Mareel project were quick to point out where the money for a breakwater could be found.
Councillor Allison Duncan said Fetlar was a “case of priority”, adding that “I don’t think there’s a problem finding that funding”. Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills said it was vital to press ahead as soon as possible. “People are leaving not because they don’t have a widescreen multiplex,” he said. “This is great land, and it’s a pity to see it out of use.”
But some members did question whether Fetlar should be being prioritised over other vulnerable island communities, such as Papa Stour and Foula. The population in Papa Stour is down to 13, while the number of residents in Foula has fallen to just 20. Even the population of Skerries, which recently dropped below 80, is a cause of medium term concern for some councillors.
Ms Baisley told The Shetland Times that although she had a strong personal interest in Fetlar she was not being parochial. “Maybe all the smaller islands need to have the focus put on them, have this kind of treatment if they want it, to check out that we’re not missing any opportunities, keep an eye on potentially difficult situations that might be arising.”
Betty Fullerton proposed an amendment at last week’s meeting to add a representative from each of the small islands to the working group, but others pointed out the potential logistical problems that would cause and some feared it would dilute any action on Fetlar.
Dr Wills said he did not think this would be the case and argued in favour of establishing a “fragile islands” group. “We have to do something or we’ll end up with three nature reserves and human beings as an endangered species,” he said.
But Ms Baisley’s motion to press ahead with a Fetlar working group won the day by 15 votes to five.