Time up for councillors (Peter Hamilton)

Councillor Betty Fullerton’s comment that Shetland Charitable Trust has “served Shetland well over the past 30 years” (last week’s paper) sits ill aside the picture of poverty and social exclusion provided by Shetland Islands Council’s research.

What yardstick was she using? Had she been speaking as a concerned trustee rather than as a local politician, Betty might instead have been able to point out areas for improvement. It has suited local politicians to interpret the remit of the charitable trust narrowly.

It is a sad fact that some at the margins of Shetland society are, directly or indirectly, victims of the massive social changes of the oil era – so too their children and now their grandchildren. There are costs for all islanders from too little attention being given to the issue of intergenerational deprivation.

A local expert once told me incidence of drug abuse, domestic violence, child abuse (including neglect), mental health issues and indeed suicide are exacerbated by the rapid social disruptions that come with the construction and running of a massive oil terminal.

These issues hit members of the pre-existing host community and newcomers alike. That is part of the reason why a community charity was thought necessary – to help redress the social disturbances further down the line.

Is enough imagination being brought to the task of redressing Shetland’s social ills? No, because the same complacent thinking dominates both the SIC and the charitable trust. There is no critical dialogue, no creative tension and too few alternative approaches are considered. This situation may suit complacent elected politicians well enough, but it is precious little use to the poorest members of an obscenely rich community.

Shetland Charitable Trust needs to become self critical. It needs to focus first and foremost on the people who live in Shetland – not on the council and not the personal reputation of councillors who might seek re-election. It needs to ditch the councillors to do so.

It is time for councillors to accept their presence on the trust is part of a broader problem in which the social victims of the oil era disturbance have not ranked sufficiently amongst local concerns.

Councillors should free the trust to follow a new direction. The current trustees should feel obliged to consult the population on the option of the trust becoming a politician free zone. They should, but will they?

Instead her fellow trustees will likely be happy to take Betty’s word for how well the trust has improved quality of life under councillor control. They will use it as evidence of why councillors must remain on the trust in the greatest possible number. Her comments are evidence of self-congratulatory groupthink at its worst.

Peter Hamilton


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