Public funding is all about priorities. The public (that’s us) choose who we want to make decisions on our behalf, and for a few years that’s what they do: decide how to spend our money. When there is plenty to go around those decisions are pretty easy and cash can be thrown about in all directions; but when it starts to dry up, things get much more complicated.
For more than two decades, Shetland had it good. Money from the oil companies was rolling in and the islands’ economy was booming. The council invested in infrastructure that was the envy of the country. They handed out money to charities, to businesses, to friends and family. They built many, many leisure centres. And they even put some pennies away for a rainy day.
But the good times, it seems, are now over. Cuts must be made, and Shetland’s collective belt must be tightened, though its bloated gut still remains. Councillors are also discovering, to their surprise and dismay, the ultimate irony of saving for a rainy day: if you invest on the stock market, your pot gets bigger in the good times and smaller in the bad. So when you need your money most, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t be there anymore. Oops! Nobody mentioned that.
So this is the point when priorities must be seriously assessed. What spending is essential? What is helpful? What is excessive? What is unnecessary? And most importantly, what kind of place do we want to live in?
These questions are significant because, at times like this, it can be easy to go wrong. Once the budgetary machetes come out, nothing and no one is safe. Anything that appears inessential is threatened; all new requests for cash are turned down. This is the approach favoured by some councillors (mainly because it doesn’t require much thought). But it’s not a very good one.
Take arts funding for example. A society in which no artistic activity takes place would be a grim one indeed, so public money is spent to encourage and support artists, not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of society as a whole. Yet, as Neil Riddell’s article this month shows (page 11), art remains an easy target for the cost cutters, and despite being the poorest of the three trusts by a considerable distance, Shetland Arts is firmly in the sights of some council snipers.
At the other end of the scale is agriculture, which is far from being “inessential”. This is the industry that provides our food for us, and is also responsible for the stewardship of the landscape. It doesn’t get much more essential than that.
But agriculture is in trouble. Crofters and farmers work very hard with very little reward. The general public (that’s us) don’t like paying much for their food, so those who produce the food find it almost impossible to make a living. Therefore, through subsidies, farmers are encouraged and supported so that they continue to produce the food that we need to eat. So, through taxation, via Europe, we are paying farmer the money we refuse to pay at the supermarket. (Of course, it would be much cheaper for us to cut out the bureaucracy and pay the money in the shop, but that’s just another of those little ironies.)
But agriculture needs supporting locally too, as the recent McCrone report has highlighted. If Shetland’s crofters and farmers are to continue, if our landscape is to be maintained, if our communities are to remain viable, we must ensure that agriculture is given the constructive help it needs. That is why the recent SLMG debacle is so frustrating; councillors were not given the information they needed and they didn’t bother to find it out for themselves, so they made a stupid mistake and were too slow in correcting it. (Certain councillors were motivated by forces less forgivable than ignorance, but that is a very small minority.)
At times like this, our representatives must be prepared to ask difficult questions: What are our real priorities? What do we mean by “essential”? What kind of place do we want to live in? If they do not ask these questions, and if they do not come up with answers, they are failing.