Shetland Life: Editorial

A place to live

In ten years, Fetlar has lost half its population. No wonder the community is seeking help and reassurance from the council. At an all-time low of just 50 people, the situation is now being described as “critical”.

At the top of the island’s list of requests is a breakwater, and certainly, as the only inhabited island in Shetland currently without sheltered berthing, that should be a priority. But the central issue here is not one of harbours, nor is it one of help for new businesses, or any other bland plans that councillors are likely to opt for. During the SIC’s development committee meeting last month, it was Sandy Cluness who put things in the simplest terms: “They need people” he said, “not money”.

The convener is right; Fetlar needs people. But what do people need in order to live somewhere like Fetlar, or anywhere else for that matter? People need houses. And here, I think, lies one of the biggest problems for small island communities.

Although Fetlar has lost 50 people in ten years, that doesn’t mean that the island is awash with empty properties awaiting new residents. At present, the only available homes are two council houses, which are not ideal for attracting new people to the island. For anyone wishing to make the move now, the best available option is to beg someone to sell them a plot of land, and then stump up the cash to build their own house. For anyone

It is sometimes asked how, almost alone among the outlying islands, Fair Isle manages to maintain its population at a reasonably steady level. The answer is not complicated. The fact is that you cannot buy a house in Fair Isle, only rent one. All potential residents must apply for an individual property and go through a selection process. This means there are no holiday homes on the island, no “occasional residences”, and houses rarely remain empty for long.

In the Western Isles, where the issue has been given more prominence than it has here, some islands are now finding that up to half their housing is taken up by these “occasional residences”. The market value of properties in some places is so high that those who actually wish to move there and make a living simply cannot afford to do so. It is destroying communities. To my mind, privately owned housing (and land), bought and sold on the open market, almost invariably harms communities like these.

If the council is truly keen, as it claims to be, to help secure the future of Shetland’s small islands, then councillors must be prepared to try something different, something ambitious. I believe that part of the solution, for Fetlar and for other small isles, may well lie in community housing.

Community housing differs from council housing in that council houses are allocated according to the applicants’ needs, whereas community housing is allocated according to the community’s needs. Applicants with necessary and desirable skills are prioritised over those wishing, for instance, to retire, or simply “get away from it all”.

It is a relatively cheap and simple proposal: the council, through agreement with residents, assists in the building, renovation or acquisition of a number of properties to form a core of unsaleable housing for the island. This housing would then, preferably, be transferred to some kind of community ownership scheme (or at the very least the community should be involved in setting allocation priorities), and let at an affordable price.

Such a scheme would necessarily start small, but I believe that its benefits would quickly become obvious, and that, as time went on, other properties might be sold, transferred or bequeathed to the community.

There will be some who shudder at the thought of surrendering their chance to make maximum profit from selling land or property, but we are talking here about the life and death of island communities, and that, I would have thought, was more important than money.

It is not a perfect solution; I do not believe there is any such thing as a perfect solution. But with a similar model already operating in Shetland, it is surely worthy at least of consideration. And may I cheekily suggest that North Isles councillor Laura Baisley might wish to show her commitment to the future of Fetlar by giving up the holiday home she owns there, and being the first to offer her property to the community.

Malachy Tallack


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