With vast sums of reserve money at its disposal, it is right and proper that Shetland Islands Council should invest in local enterprises. In a small island economy, where many businesses operate at the margins of existence, such funding is often the difference between success and failure. And for every Judane, which has cost the public purse £400,000, there are many more which thrive; some even make money for the council in the form of loan returns. We are promised figures next week which will give some much-needed context to the angry debate that has flowed since The Shetland Times revealed the council’s decision to write off a substantial part of what Judane owed.
Yet the council, as one of its members pointed out this week, doesn’t help itself. It is remarkable that more than a month after that decision, which was made in secret, the council has still made no public comment. It continues to refer to a confidentiality clause in a legal agreement between the two sides that is being finalised. Legally, that may be correct. But there is a much bigger public relations issue here. People, quite rightly, want an explanation as to why their money has been used in this fashion. Councillor Caroline Miller succeeded in obtaining permission this week to respond to legitimate questions about her role in channelling payments to Judane creditors, answers which had they been given when the questions were originally posed might have spared her some of the anguish she referred to in her radio interview this week. Surely the council can give itself similar leeway.
Given the high-profile losses of substantial sums of money in Shetland over the last decade, the council must assure the public that the companies and organisations it chooses to invest in henceforth are well-managed. Business is inherently risky, so it is inevitable that further sums of public money will be lost. But if it can be demonstrated that great care and attention is devoted to the deployment of such funds who, apart from those volatile souls who cavil for a living, can complain?