We can do better
We find ourselves in uncertain times. Difficult decisions must be made, and quickly, but public faith in those whose job it is to do so could hardly be any lower. Cuts are coming – to jobs, to services, to “quality of life”, perhaps – but we have yet to learn where exactly the axe will fall.
There are many questions remaining over the path being laid for us – not least regarding the wisdom of the £250 million lower limit that has been set for the council’s reserve fund. Such a figure is not only entirely arbitrary (since the amount of interest earned on investments will always be dependent on the strength or otherwise of the national and global economy), it also leaves Shetland more vulnerable to economic ups and downs than would seem necessary.
To maintain such a strict level, we will have to give up the ability to cushion ourselves against financial downturns. When the economy shrinks, so too do our investments, and so we have to stop spending. Therefore the fund becomes useful only when it’s least required – in boom times. In more difficult circumstances, such as now, we will have to cut like crazy. I’m no economist, but it seems to me that something is amiss here. Saving for a rainy day is a waste of time unless those savings can help to prevent you from getting wet. And it looks like we’re about to get drenched.
But a bigger question perhaps is the one that is driving this entire exercise, which is this: “How can we cut £18 million off our current spending?” The answer to this question, sadly, can never be a satisfactory one; it can never be more than a matter of damage limitation.
Instead I think we should be asking ourselves something slightly different: “What kind of place do we wish to live in? And how can we build and sustain that place with the resources we have available?” This, of course, is a much bigger and more difficult question, because it requires exactly what our decision makers have shown themselves to be lacking: imagination.
I was involved earlier this year in the council’s “scenario planning” process, “Imagining Shetland’s Futures”, as an observer of discussions between invited participants: councillors, officials, representatives from the NHS and from the private and voluntary sectors. I was at first disappointed and later disheartened by what I heard. With a few notable exceptions, the contributions were stale, conservative and overwhelmingly dull. Nothing on that day gave me confidence that our future is in good hands; nothing reassured me that new ideas were on the horizon.
Shetland has done very well for itself over the past few decades, and this has bred complacency. Foresight and imagination have not been too necessary while the money has been rolling in. Eyes have been half closed, and fingers quietly crossed. The results of this complacency are now becoming apparent, yet even today some in the Town Hall look like they’re just minding the shop until someone else comes along to clear up the mess.
I refuse to believe that this is the best we can do.
There are in Shetland any number of people with the intelligence, the motivation and the imagination to do better. And there is too, I think, a widespread recognition that our most important assets are not the millions that we gamble on the stock market. Our most important assets are our communities. At this uncertain time, our actions should not be guided solely by the whims of the world economy, but by the desire to protect and to strengthen those communities – to build resilience for the future, whatever it may bring.
We can do better. We deserve better.
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This is my last edition as editor of Shetland Life, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people who have contributed to the magazine over the past five years, and the colleagues, particularly Andrew Morrison, whose hard work has made my own easier. I’d like also to thank the magazine’s many readers for complaining so rarely. It has been a privilege to do this job, and I wish my successor Tom Morton the very best of luck.