Shetland crofters and farmers are to get a purpose-built slaughterhouse at the Staney Hill and an improved livestock mart next door, paid for with 100 per cent grants from Shetland Islands Council totalling £845,000.
The projects were approved by the SIC development committee yesterday despite another vitriolic attack by councillor Allison Duncan on the groups behind the twin ventures.
The new small slaughterhouse for the Shetland Abattoir Co-operative Limited will cost around £377,000 and will be suitable for killing cattle, pigs and sheep. The co-op will also buy the existing small sheep slaughterhouse at Laxfirth for £12,500 to use at peak times. The company hopes to kill 5,500 sheep and 150 cattle in the first year, rising by 18 per cent a year for sheep and 10 per cent for cattle.
After a radical rethink, Shetland Livestock Marketing Group (SLMG) has separated itself from its abattoir co-op and will now focus on livestock and meat sales and marketing at the Marts, ceasing all involvement in the slaughtering business.
SLMG is to get a £407,000 council grant, using £220,000 to upgrade the existing Marts and buy equipment, including a freezer unit and refrigerated lorry, and a further £127,000 to run a marketing office and develop sales on the internet and through specialists.
Proposing support for SLMG, councillor Frank Robertson said: “Without this group the producers in Shetland would be in a very poor way indeed.”
The ambitious new plans come just months after SLMG came close to being sunk by bad debt. Now, if all goes according to plan, livestock producers will have two modern abattoirs to choose from, with the new one at Staney Hill competing against the improved operation planned by Pure Shetland Lamb at Boddam, also being funded largely by a council grant.
The sudden splurge of public money in the form of big grants has become possible under emergency EU rules to aid businesses struggling under the global financial crisis. The council’s hands were previously tied by strict state aid rules but those have been relaxed until 31st December 2010 to allow 100 per cent grants up to £450,000 to companies in difficulty, if they meet the EU criteria.
The SIC is currently investing heavily in agriculture, having been criticised for treating it as the poor relation to the favoured fishing industry in the islands.
In June the council granted £450,000 to Pure Shetland Lamb to upgrade its multi-species slaughterhouse – but only once outstanding debts to crofters are paid off first. Councillors were told that so far 63 claims have been lodged, seeking around £40,000 from owners Magnie Geordie Smith and his son George.
Creditors have until Tuesday to come forward to the council with claims and it has appointed a lawyer to act as arbiter in deciding if they are valid. A report stated: “No monies will be advanced to Pure Shetland Lamb until we have resolved this issue, and all the other pre-conditions have been satisfied.”
The two major new investments in Lerwick were approved yesterday despite hostile questioning from councillor Duncan, a vehement critic of SLMG and supporter of the Boddam operation. He stopped short of trying to wreck the projects although he was convinced the abattoir co-op’s slaughterhouse could not be built and equipped for £377,000 and he did not want further grants of public money to follow if it was found they had under-budgeted.
Among his demands were that members of the abattoir co-op should make a personal contribution to the cost of their slaughterhouse in the same way that the owners of Pure Shetland Lamb were putting up £55,000 towards their upgrade.
Councillor Alastair Cooper eventually rounded on Mr Duncan for asking questions about the maximum funding allowed under state aid rules, which members should know already. “I’m amazed dat do is sitting yunder professing bloody ignorance!” he said.
Councillor Laura Baisley accused him of a “dog in the manger” approach in trying to protect Boddam when many crofters would never dream of using it. She and Robert Henderson said they had been lobbied by North Isles crofters who said they would rather kill their lambs in the barn or send them on the hoof to Aberdeen.
Betty Fullerton seemed to sum up the feelings of many of the members towards the Staney Hill slaughterhouse plan. “Shetland needs this and we need to get on with it,” she said.
Mr Duncan eventually said he did support the second slaughterhouse and he looked forward to it going ahead. He reserved his last attack for the debate on funding for SLMG, a group which he said gave him serious concern, which had failed as a business with £72,000 written off in the past and £40,000 requested from the council this year to keep it out of liquidation.
Mr Duncan slammed SLMG and council officials for repeated delays in letting him see a list of recent financial transactions by the marketing group, forcing him to take legal advice as to his rights in tracking the public money SLMG has been spending. Although the information – which apparently comprises a single sheet– has been available to him since Tuesday he said he was too busy to scrutinise it until next week.
He was not alone in his suspicions that the group would never stand on its own feet. Councillor Gussie Angus said the public subsidy simply could not go on in future, particularly in helping commercially market its products.
Mrs Baisley echoed the views of others that the reinvigorated marketing group was the best and only option in front of the industry. “This is the best hope we have of turning the agriculture industry around in Shetland.”
Outside afterwards SLMG chairman Ronnie Eunson said he was very relieved and he thanked the SIC for its support. He said the next year would be “absolutely crucial” for agriculture in Shetland. “We are at last at the stage where we have a lifeline.”