A councillor has voiced his fear that if attempts to attract new blood to Shetland are successful, it could spark an “exodus” of natives and create pressure on the availability of jobs and housing.
At yesterday morning’s meeting of the council’s development committee, Allison Duncan questioned where newcomers to the isles would be housed given a waiting list for accommodation of around 900.
Members were discussing the merits of Shetland’s presence at the One Life Live exhibition in London back in March, which was aimed at promoting “moving, living and working” in the isles and cost £14,000.
There had been some public scepticism about officials’ attendance at the event at the time. But a report from the council’s marketing officer Neil Henderson, one of those who went to London, said the results had been “highly encouraging”, with the number of people visiting the Shetland.org website – trailed as an “electronic gateway” to the isles – increasing from 2,462 in February to 4,012 in March.
The number of subscribers to the site’s newsletter also rose by more than 500 following the event. That, the report stated, meant potentially more people “giving active consideration to move to Shetland to live and work”.
But Mr Duncan said that while he applauded the work that was being done, he was concerned that it highlighted a “communication breakdown” within the council because the housing department had only learned of the SIC’s presence in the UK capital through local radio.
He is also worried about the possible consequences of the SIC’s ambitious aspiration to raise the population to 25,000 by the year 2025. “Are we going to have an exodus of our own people if we have people coming in to take Shetland jobs?” he enquired.
There was some sympathy for his remarks around the chamber, with Iris Hawkins saying it was important to ensure that people coming into the community from the UK mainland did not “pull the feet from under our own folk” in terms of access to housing.
But councillor Laura Baisley said it would be difficult to define who was local and who was not. “How do we tell who is a Shetlander and who is not? Do we have to be gene-tested?”
Mr Henderson said there had been 10 individual queries from people interested in moving to Shetland on the back of the exhibition, two of whom have since moved here. “I don’t see this as hordes of folk,” remarked councillor Jim Henry.
Delving into the past, councillor Frank Robertson pointed out that there had been a population of 17,500 once upon a time and when the oil industry moved in, the isles had had to deal with around 3,000 new people in “a very short space of time” and even if there were to be an influx of newcomers, it was something the community had proved it could cope with. “We managed it, and the information now is one hundred times better than when we were trying to do it in 1975 and 1976.”
Shetland’s population is currently hovering just below the 22,000 mark and a population study this time last year suggested that on current trends it would fall to just over 20,000 by 2030. More concerning are projected demographic changes which could see the working age population slip by some 3,000, with the accompanying pressure on education and social care budgets that would entail.
There is also substantial evidence that the real exodus taking place is that of the many young people leaving Shetland to go to university and choosing not return. According to last year’s study, which identified a number of key weaknesses in the make-up of the local economy, to meet the 25,000 target the outward flow of people aged 16 to 34 would need to be halved and the inward migration of those under the age of 45 would have to increase by 50 per cent.