Remote isles need radical solutions, now

The communities in Fair Isle and Fetlar have both been given a major boost in the last fortnight with the announcement of support from the European Regional Development Fund. Around £2.3 million pounds was pledged to the two islands, between the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and the proposed berthing facilities for Fetlar.

But this was a rare piece of good news for Shetland’s small isles. Here, MALACHY TAL­LACK asks what can be done to help revitalise these com­munities.

In the past few decades the threat of population decline has hovered over several of our islands, with the most recent cry for help coming from Fetlar. In 10 years the com­munity there has lost nearly half of its residents, and an urgent search for solutions is now underway. When a crisis point was reached last year, councillors agreed to set up a working group to investigate pos­sible means of reviving the island’s fortunes. The breakwater, it was recognised, could be only part of the solution.

Laura Baisley is a councillor for the North Isles and a former resident of Fetlar. She is keen to underline the fact that the island’s problems are nothing new. “This is an ongoing situation of depopulation and bad demographics – an ageing popula­tion and not enough young people.

“There have been several attempts previously to regenerate the island. There was an excellent development plan drawn up before – some houses were renovated, and the interpretive centre came out of that plan. But the issue of berthing has never been addressed. Now, with the downturn in the agricultural situation, things have gone from bad to worse.”

Fetlar, of course, is not alone. Both Foula and Papa Stour have seen their populations decline to worrying levels, and Papa in particular has suffered from per­sistent community disharmony, which has undoubtedly added to its troubles.

As councillor for Shetland West, Frank Robertson represents both islands. He admits that Papa Stour, which now has only nine permanent residents, is in a very worrying state.

“Depopulation has had a marked effect on Papa. It has a roll-on roll-off ferry service – state of the art for a small island – but the kind of person that can settle and contribute to the island’s community and survive economically is difficult to find. There tends to be a kind of romantic notion of island life, but the harsh reality in the middle of winter is something else.

“There’s crofts for sale in Papa, and the island has some of the best land in Shetland – but some parts of it are very neglected now; there’s more weeds than grass. There’s people there that work very hard to keep the island going, but it really is suffering from marked depopula­tion.”

Mr Robertson also highlighted another issue affecting Papa Stour – absenteeism – to which, perhaps ironically, the quality of its transport links have left it vulnerable.

“Absentee crofting has been a sore point in Papa. Obviously when somebody is working crofts from a distance it removes the potential for somebody working in the com­munity.

“Papa just at the moment needs families; it needs the school re-opened; and it obviously needs people with a vision for making a living on an island where there is opportunity.”

This is the key issue, the point to which all others boil down: Papa Stour, like Fetlar, like Foula and the other small isles, needs people. Specifically, it needs people who are able and willing to work, and to become part of a functioning community. Infrastructural and service improvements – a break­water, improved broadband access, regular ferries, a reliable energy supply, such as the impressive renewable system recently installed in Foula – these things improve life for those already in the islands, and they certainly make population growth possible, but it is clear that they do not act as the trigger necessary to make growth happen. So what more can be done?

Mr Robertson says: “The council can only provide the infrastructure and the services. You can’t go very much beyond that. For Papa Stour I think the council has met its obligations.”

In a sense, this is difficult to argue with. There is no obligation on the SIC to provide any more than they have already done for the isles. Indeed, the level of service provision is almost certainly higher than it might be in comparable communities elsewhere in the UK. But still the problems exist. This has led some to suggest that the islands’ ills are incurable – a mysterious, endemic and apparently fatal affliction. But this is nonsense. All of the islands have a great deal to recommend them as places to live and to work. Their problems are part of a wider trend of depopulation in rural areas, and the solutions to these problems require more than just money, they require ideas.

Ms Baisley admits that the council’s tendency to wait until the last minute before acting was part of the reason things had come this far. “People don’t seem to listen to small islands’ needs until it’s too late,” she says. “Unfortunately, fire-fighting is always the name of the game.” This is not satisfactory. The small islands do not need crisis management, they need good management. Sadly though, for Papa Stour, and perhaps for Fetlar too, crisis is now the situation that must be dealt with.

The solution offered for Fetlar last autumn was the formation of a working group, consisting of islanders, councillors and relevant council staff. The group’s aim is to look at all of the problems affecting the island, and examine ways of addressing these.

The fact that the working group’s remit will be as broad as possible is re-assuring. A holistic approach is essential if it is to successfully address some of the impediments to recovery. But in a sense, I fear, it will not be holistic enough.

There is an apparent reluctance within the council to treat our islands as if they had anything at all in common. Individual problems are examined and individual solutions (occasionally) suggested. This gives the impression that things are being done, but so far it does not seem to be a very successful approach.

Ms Baisley points out that all islands are different, which is clearly true, but it does not follow that ignoring their similarities is the right approach. During the council’s discussions on Fetlar, a proposal to create a small isles forum for discussing shared issues was rejected by councillors – a decision that seems to demonstrate their reluctance to move on from the “fire-fighting” approach to the islands.

The small isles certainly are all different – there are many factors that are unique to each of them – but ultimately the key problems can be seen as shared problems. Depopulation, lack of employment, and in most cases a lack of housing – these are common factors. What is also important is that there are successful island communities in Shetland. Both Skerries and Fair Isle seem to be avoiding the more severe difficulties of the other three outer isles, and these two communities offer two entirely different models for that success. Frank Robertson pointed specifically to Fair Isle’s unusual system of housing allocation as something that would help an island like Papa Stour.

“If the Fair Isle model could be applied, particularly in Papa – if we had some kind of process where applicants were evaluated by the economic needs of the island – that would certainly help.”

It would seem self-evident that all of the islands would benefit from sharing thoughts and ideas on tackling their common issues, and it would seem equally self-evident that they should be provided with a forum for doing so.

The islands would benefit too, I believe, from expanding the current level of discussion and considering some more radical suggestions for their future. In particular, with the current model of poor council management so obviously failing, it is surely now time that Shetland’s outer isles began thinking about the possibility of managing them­selves.

On the subject of community ownership, Shetland lags well behind the Western Isles. There, island communities have been steadily moving in that direction for the past decade, and some have seen their fortunes turned around after making the decision.

It is clear that community involvement in the land is utterly essential for the success of a place. Islanders must feel that they have a stake in the fate of their island, both as individuals and as a community, before success can even be imagined. One means of achieving this stake is through collective ownership or, at least, collective management of an island and its resources.

Sandra Holmes, from Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Community Land Unit, outlined the reasons that community ownership has become such an appealing prospect else­where in Scotland.

“It’s all about trying to strengthen and sustain communities in often fragile areas. It puts control in the hands of the local community, and often they are the ones best placed to determine their particular needs.

“We define community land ownership, broadly, to mean locally-based communities of various types gaining increased control over, and access to, the physical assets in their locality, for the purpose of exploiting opportunities and realising rural development benefits for the community.

“There’s a huge diversity within the sector of community ownership, and there are many different kinds of projects. It can be from buying a whole island to buying a local shop or post office. These projects all hopefully generate some kind of income from community assets.

So it’s a way of empowering com­munities.

“The intended final impact of the work of the [Community Land Unit] team is sustainable social, economic and environmental benefits accruing to local rural communities.”

Ms Baisley points out that, on an individual island basis, the logistics of community ownership could be too daunting to consider, which may be true, though the examples of Eigg and Gigha in the Hebrides show that it can be done on a small scale, and that, crucially, it can bring great benefits (Gigha famously increased its population by more than 50 per cent in the five years after its buyout). But even if individual islands feel unable to consider such a move alone (and certainly in the case of Papa Stour, the current population size puts a limit on what can be done within the community itself) that does not seem good enough reason to abandon all discussion on the subject. Perhaps there is a case for looking collectively at our outer islands, and imagining how the bureaucracy and workload of their management could somehow be shared, as part of a small isles land trust involving all of the communities.

This is a big subject, and it is a subject that is quite new to Shetland. The logistics of it are not im­mediately obvious, and the reality is undoubtedly daunting. But the threat to our island communities is equally daunting, and calls, surely, for very serious thought. There may be very good reasons why community ownership cannot work in Shetland as it does in the Western Isles, but those reasons have yet to be voiced.

There are positive things currently happening in the outer isles, and there are positive ideas coming forward for their future. A new family has recently moved to Foula, and the prospects for the community there are “looking brighter”, ac­cording to Mr Robertson. In Fetlar, plans for renewable energy pro­duction and for growing food in poly-tunnels are being discussed, as well as the long-awaited breakwater. But no one seriously believes that these can be the salvation of either island; they are small, perhaps significant, steps forward, but no more.

The fact remains that any solution, if it is to offer real, long term hope, is going to need to be a radical one. And that is what community ownership represents: an entirely different model for the management of our islands. It also represents a much greater involve­ment of islanders in the future of their islands. Successful com­munities cannot be created by bureaucratic tinkering and minor (or even major) infrastructural improvements. And councillors cannot always be relied upon to come up with the right answers, or even to bother considering the right questions. The outer isles, with their small populations, are rarely high on anybody’s list of priorities. Ms Baisley remains cautiously optimistic about Fetlar’s future. “You have to be optimistic because the alternative would be to give up,” she says. “There will always be hope so long as there is a good community. We just need a bit of luck really, apart from fiddling around with the infrastructure. You just need the luck of getting the right couple of people there.”

Ms Baisley clearly cares deeply for the island, and understands the community there. But it is a sad state indeed if “luck” is the best Fetlar can hope for.

There are no endemic, insur­mountable obstacles to the success of our outer isles. Each of them has the potential to be successful, and each of them should be given the support needed to make that possible. But if that success is to be solid and long-lasting, then it must be built upon a foundation of greater community participation in the management of the island, and a greater community investment in its future. If community ownership can offer such a foundation, then surely it must be part of any serious discussion about the fate of our small isles.


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