It would hardly be controversial to suggest that there is something of a crisis in Shetland politics today.
At the time of the last elections, in 2007, there was considerable hope within the community that a new group of councillors would bring life to the authority – fresh ideas and a renewed sense of direction. The reality could hardly have been more disappointing.
For the past few months, the Shetland public have been the unwilling audience at a hideous performance, both tragedy and farce in one. They have watched aghast as time and money have been wasted, and as Shetland’s reputation has been damaged. Giant egos have done battle upon this stage, but there have been no winners; everyone is a loser here.
Beyond the few individuals directly involved in this performance, one might have hoped for some clear, sensible voices to have emerged from the background. But again, hope has been virtually in vain. Most councillors are happy, even determined, it seems, to stay in the background. Could it be, as it certainly appears, that they really have nothing to say for themselves? Or is it that a significant number stood for council simply because they were bored with retirement, so were looking for a way to pass the time rather than a difficult job? Who knows?
Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the Town Hall has some serious problems. Last week, after the authority received yet more criticism from Audit Scotland, Allison “Flea” Duncan called for his colleagues to get their “act together”, and in the process he managed to sound like the voice of reason. When that happens, it is clear that something needs to change.
At the heart of the council’s problems, I think, is a complete absence of vision. Matters at hand are dealt with, or postponed, or left for somebody else to deal with. Minds are made up, then changed. Shoulders are shrugged. What is entirely missing is any sign of councillors – even one councillor – really offering an illuminating vision of the future.
Partly, I suspect, this is because many councillors see the Viking Energy windfarm as the future for Shetland. If the projected income for that project is correct, Shetland might just be able to continue on its merry way without having to make too many difficult decisions or come up with any new, radical ideas. For councillors entirely unburdened by ideas, this is the perfect solution.
But of course it’s not as simple as that. The majority of Shetlanders, it seems, do not want the windfarm to be built. And even if democracy does not win out, there are an infinite number of factors that could very easily knock this cosy dream off course. Difficult decisions do have to be made, and new, radical ideas are needed; and they are needed now. But if councillors are not going to offer these ideas themselves, to where can we look?
As Vaila Wishart suggests this month, one possibility would be the formation of a future planning forum – a community think-tank that could discuss and debate some of the critical issues facing the islands. Such a forum would necessarily include those with direct involvement and experience in relevant areas (including, perhaps, councillors) but crucially it would allow for individuals to think freely, without the mental constrictions of red tape and bureaucracy that exist within the workplace.
A planning forum could be established quite easily in Shetland. There are a great many people here who care about the future of this community, and who have the vision required to help make it a better place. I believe it could provide precisely the fresh ideas and sense of direction that are so sorely missing from public life in the islands today.
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Just when I was making myself depressed about the council’s lack of thinking, along came news of Emma Perring’s updated research into poverty and deprivation in Shetland. Some councillors have so far seemed reluctant to accept that poverty even exists among the under-60s here, but it is clear now (as though it could ever really have been doubted) that they are wrong.
Some very interesting policy proposals have apparently emerged from this study, and it must be hoped that this research is read, understood and acted upon by those sitting in the Town Hall.