Shetland Life: Editorial

Now is the time

As the new year begins, many people make resolutions. They imagine how their lives could be better, then make the changes they need to reach that goal.

Often these resolutions involve making cuts. We wish to look slimmer so we eat less chocolate; we wish to feel healthier so we stop smoking; we wish to be calmer and happier, so we spend less of our time stressing about our jobs.
Sometimes we fail to keep these resolutions, but that first imagining – of an improved future – can be a great motivator to make necessary changes.

But what about those who make decisions on our behalf – politicians and councillors? When is the right time for them to think about the future?

In uncertain times it can be difficult to look ahead. Choices are made under constantly-evolving circumstances, and the availability of money is most often the chief influencing factor, rather than any notion of positive change. When economic times are tough the default reaction for decision-makers is to retreat.
Expenditure must be cut and “inessential” spending is always the first to go.

Amid the frantic snip-snipping, the time never seems right to address the question of how we want the future to look. “The harsh economic reality” is the only reality we are permitted to believe in. This is why environmental concerns are always pushed aside when money gets tight, and this is why good ideas are abandoned in favour of cheap ones. In times like these, politicians become future-blind.

Nationally we see this trend in an ever-increasing number of decisions. We see it very clearly in education, where the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition are busy creating a system in which only the wealthy can afford to go to university. The proposal to saddle students with enormous personal debts sits rather oddly with the coalition’s dogmatic insistence on eliminating national debt, but the fiscal deficit is today and the student’s woes are tomorrow, so frankly they haven’t a hope.

We see this future-blindness too in the changes taking place within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Removing emergency tugs and coastguard stations may seem like a jolly good way to save a few pounds to someone in London, but from up here it looks like madness. The service the coastguard provide is not some frilly extra, it is an absolute necessity; and the kind of cuts that are being proposed risk not only jobs but lives.

Here in Shetland, there is considerable evidence that future-blindness is already well established in the Town Hall. Most obviously it can be detected in the recent decision to close Scalloway Junior High School (see pages 15-19). The chance to make a financial saving (even if that saving only ever exists on paper) has apparently taken complete precedence over the education of children and the future of a community. During the consultation process leading up to the decision, one councillor shocked pupils at the school by telling them, “It’s all about the money; everything’s about the money”. But no-one who read the lacklustre consultation documents the council produced would disagree with that.

Part of the problem within the education department today is that Hayfield House is notoriously well-stocked with failed teachers, promoted out of the classroom for the benefit of pupils. But even if their offices were overflowing with talented staff, the job of making improvements would be impossible without vision at the very top.

When councillors and politicians define their role not as ensuring a better future for the communities they serve but as balancing books, whatever the cost, then something has gone wrong. Contrary to what pupils in Scalloway were told, it isn’t “all about the money”. A politician should be more than an accountant. And if they fail to aim higher than that then the result will be inevitable decline – in services, in outcomes and in quality of life.

Things can get better, and in our society we certainly can make do with less – in fact it would do us good in many areas of life. But to make things better at a time of reducing resources requires something that most politicians and councillors seem to lack; it requires imagination. The ability to imagine how things ought to be is fundamental to the job of politics. Without it all we get are mindless, needless, dangerous cuts.

Now is the time to think about the future.

Malachy Tallack


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