Shetland Islands Council is only paying lip service to decentralisation while continuing to pursue policies which serve to concentrate housing and job opportunities in and around Lerwick.
That was the view expressed by several councillors during this morning’s services committee meeting after learning that an eye-opening 85 per cent of the 298 social housing units currently in the pipeline will be built in Lerwick, Bressay and the Central Mainland.
“Where’s the decentralisation?” asked incensed West Side councillor Gary Robinson, whose ward is only in line for 10 new social homes. He was backed by colleague Florence Grains, who for years has heard the local authority adopting the mantra of decentralisation while doing little to enact change. “It’s something nice that trips off the tongue,” she suggested.
Of the 298 social houses collectively planned by Hjaltland Housing and the SIC to tackle a waiting list of just below 1,000, 158 are earmarked for the Central Mainland with a further 96 in Lerwick and Bressay. In the next five years only 16 units are planned for the South Mainland, 12 for the North Mainland, 10 for the West Side and six between the North Isles, Whalsay and Skerries.
Mr Robinson accepted that Lerwick needs a “modest increase” in housing provision but said central areas just outside the town were increasingly populated by people “who would rather live in Lerwick”. He said that was having a damaging effect on community cohesion – with some areas finding it difficult to get volunteers to help run community halls.
One of the repeat findings during consultations over the “Main Issues Report” on the planning dilemmas facing the isles was that “folk are not wanting more in the Central Mainland”, Mr Robinson said. People in places like Walls are “crying out” for accommodation. “We need to buck up our ideas on this,” he said.
Mr Robinson’s remarks will strike a chord with many residents in areas on the periphery who regularly rail against what they perceive as an excessive and unhealthy convergence of economic activity around the “central belt” of Lerwick and Scalloway. It was a repeated refrain from the Skerries community at last month’s consultation on the proposal to close their secondary department.
Job opportunities are needed in such areas as well as houses, it was pointed out by other councillors during yesterday’s meeting in Lerwick Town Hall. That fact was acknowledged last month by interim council chief executive Alistair Buchan, who hopes to take action to stem the proliferation of SIC jobs in Lerwick.
Members are in broad agreement that such a move makes sense for a variety of reasons including the cost of travel, the pressure on commuter ferries and the need to retain and invigorate remote and fragile communities.
Mr Buchan plans to shy away from “divisive” actions such as forcing staff or departments to relocate to rural areas, but wants to capitalise on the desire of some staff not to have to commute to work.
North Mainland member Bill Manson feared any “further drain” on outlying areas and said he could foresee his constituency ending up “somewhere near a desert” in the middle of the century once oil-related work opportunities come to an end. He also wanted action to “save ourselves having to cram Lerwick ever tighter”.
Central ward councillor Iris Hawkins stressed it was a “two-way thing” with a need for employment to go hand in hand with houses. She singled out Burra as a community in her constituency whose residents were also “crying out” for houses amid worry about “losing their young folk”, adding the SIC simply could not ignore the expressed desires of those on the waiting list.
One seasoned council observer said yesterday he felt the local authority had “missed a trick” in failing to plan for a sizeable town with comparable infrastructure to Lerwick in Brae when the oil industry arrived in the 1970s. That is one of the key reasons for the inevitable – and difficult to reverse – drift of rural folk into Lerwick and its surrounding areas, he suggested.