Council convener Sandy Cluness says the opportunity for more local control should be grasped.
In a couple of years or so we will have a fundamental choice to make: whether to restore Scotland’s independence after 300 years, or to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Will there be just one question, or more? Some Labour politicians are advocating a secon choice and the Liberals are attempting to redefine their home rule heritage, thus introducing the ‘devo max’ alternative – greater fiscal autonomy. I suspect that privately, Alex Salmond would be satisfied with either. Control of the purse strings is always the best way of holding onto political power.
Whatever the outcome, the substantial changes which the SNP intends to make in Scotland ‘s internal public administration may be just as important for the islands. We have to face up to the reality of substantial over-governance and employment in the public sector and an international financial picture which is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. the pain will be felt in Shetland as elsewhere.
During two previous devolution debates, the prospects for greater autonomy for Shetland have been considered. Does history provide us with any inspiration on this occasion?
In the 1970s we had Jo Grimond as our MP, a politician of great ability and stature, recognised by political friends and opponents alike as someone who could have held the highest government posts had he been in another party. His views about the need for change in the way we are governed are just as valid today:
“We should have reasserted the democratic element in our system of government and curbed the bureaucratic. We should have reduced the amount of government from which we suffer, pruned the innumerable boards which we have to carry, and curbed the amount of legislation under which the country groans. At the same time we should have provided local communities with the means by which they could aim at the highest and most distinctive way of life. We must abandon the soul-destroying view that every community must be treated the same and reduced to the lowest common denominator.”
Jo had secured an amendment to the Scotland Bill which provided that in the event of Shetlanders voting against devolution, a commission would be established to examine the most appropriate governance of the islands. A referendum by Shetland Islands council resulted in 9162 islanders supporting our MP with only 1082 against. As it happened, the requirement of a national 40 per cent turnout effectively killed off any prospect of further devolution at the time.
The Shetland Movement, then with some 800 members, kept the autonomy flag flying for a while. We made our submissions to the Montgomery committee in 1984 which concluded that the all-purpose islands authorities had been a success and that their powers should not be redcued, but instead “the opportunity should be taken whenever possible to consolidate, develop and extend these powers.”
The Scottish Constitutional Convention came to the same conclusions in the runup to the next devolution bill, stating that “the structure of the islands government should be entrenched in the Scotland Act and should not be subject to amendment without the approval of a majority of electors in each island area.”
Encouraged by this, Jo Grimond’s successor as MP, Jim Wallace, under some degree of local pressure, proposed an amendment to the Scottish Parliament Bill to “try to complete the unfinished business” of the Montgomery Committee and the Convention by arguing that “further devolution should continue into our island communities.”
Jim received broad local support for his amendment, particularly his Schedule X, which contained many of the principles of the Faroese Home Rule Act of 1948 – allowing for the transfer to the islands authority, by agreement, of a long list of relevant functions of government. these included passenger and road transport; sea and air transport; police, fire water and sewerage; the functions of SEPA and the Crown Estate; liquor licensing and licensing under the Civic Government Act 1982; tourism; land use and planning; housing; further education; careers advice and guidance; sport and the arts.
Not surprisingly, Jim had no support from Labour party politicians, particularly in Scotland. Scottish politicians and their civil servants were envious of Shetland’s arrangements with the oil industry, and were as obstructive as possible in our desire to get the best deal for the islands. Donald Dewar rejected the amendment outright, and once the Scottish Parliament was elected, Jim Wallace, as an MSP, was appointed as Deputy First Minister, and despite some local protestations, any prospect of further devolution to the isles failed.
The reason for Scottish political angst and concentrated opposition from civil servants was the existence of the 1974 ZCC Act, promoted to try to retain a fair slice of oil income within the islands. The national Auditors were determined that any income we received should result in an equal reduction in central government funding. These demands were rejected as the terms of the Act allowed us to retain profits within the Reserve Fund for the benefit of islanders into the future. The Council also used money received as a result of the Disturbance agreement to create the Shetland Islands Council Charitable Trust. These two funds have since delivered around half a billion pounds worth of infrastructure and services to the islands.
I personally find it ironic in this new era of proposed integration of local government services that this system, which has been admired by so many, including the present Scottish government, is under threat once again. Audit Scotland has for years qualified the council’s accounts, despite substantial legal advice to the contrary, because of our refusal to include those of the Charitable Trust.
Any such amalgamation of funds would presumably not be acceptable to the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator, which refuses to accept the unique qualities of a trust created from community funds, delivering services which in other parts of Scotland would be the responsibility of local government. Shetland Leasing and Property Company was established to assist local industry as well as providing necessary infrastructure as required in the community. The results are improved facilities for everyone, throughout the islands.
Today councillors are encumbered with ridiculous ‘conflict of interest’ rules when acting as trustees in order to deliver the same benefits to the community.
In May, to the surprise of many, including the SNP, Alex Salmond secured an overall majority, a result never envisaged in the original devolution legislation. His government has to cope with a huge financial headache in an era of global financial meltdown and a massive reduction in UK grants. Shetland will not be immune from all the difficulties which ensue, despite the reserves created by former councillors and trustees. The way forward will clearly be the delivery of services at a much lower cost than present.
For this reason, if no other, the way Shetland is governed should be firmly back on the political agenda.
The SNP consistently passed resolutions at conferences in the past which provided that, in the vent of Scotland gaining independence, Shetland would be granted a degree of autonomy along the lines of Faroese status, as promoted by my old friend the late Roy Grönneberg and his colleagues. While these views may now only be of historical interest, John Swinney has recently been making it abundantly clear that the only way forward is through real collaboration and the integration of public bodies and agencies.
The removal of the regional tier of management in fire and police and the proposed reduction of expensive quangos, provides a clear indication of the future face of local governance – the plus side of the repatriation of the former areas of local government in the Wallace Amendment would be the offsetting of public sector job losses.
Encouraged that the new Government is not seeking an amalgamnation between island authorities or with larger mainland units in a ‘one size fits all’ approach, the three island authorities have submitted proposals to the Christie commission which may lead to completely new organisations delivering all essential services within the islands.
Should the general public be interested in potential local and national constitutional change?
Shetland is still a community with great potential.There are many millions of barrels of oil and large quantities of gas east and west of the islands. BP, Total and others are estimating perhaps another 40 years of activity at Sullom Voe. There are hundreds of oil installations to be decommissioned and we are well placed to have a piece of that business. We can share in the promise of the renewables industry, on both land and sea. We can invest in our indigenous industries – agriculture, knitwear and tourism, and even in fisheries, despite European policies. We can be important players in the technological, cultural and musical worlds. We have an enormously important and successful voluntary sector.
But do we still have the necessary hunger for success, as in the past? Do we have the individuals who possess the skill and confidence to fight for what is best for the community? Who will seek any additional administrative powers to give us an edge when necessary, while refusing to accept the mediocrity of COSLA-styled local government?
There have been so many changes in population and in the way we live in these islands since the advent of oil. there is a large majority of people here who choose not to make their views known in public or to take part in the endless consultations to which we have become addicted. Contributions to local media often come from single-issue groups; local branch members of national parties tend to hibernate between elections. And we seem prepared only to elect to the council those who seem to be of an ‘independent’ persuasion.
The hour of the next local election is fast approaching. I hope that, cometh that hour, cometh the men and women to guide Shetland through another momentous period in its history. I wish them the best of fortune. they will certainly need it.