As the chancellor in a Tory-led government ushering in colossal spending cutbacks, George Osborne has swiftly become one of the most unpopular men in British politics.
In the midst of the Eurozone crisis and faced by a stalling economy, the last thing he probably needed while waiting for a flight was a flea in the ear from one of Shetland’s most colourful councillors.
Allison Duncan informed fellow councillors this week that he recently bumped into Mr Osborne as they waited for separate flights in the departure lounge at Inverness Airport. Clocking the “familiar face”, he grabbed the opportunity to politely ask that the UK government makes good on Kenneth Clarke’s 1996 promise to write off the local authority’s £40.5 million housing debt.
Whether in these times of austerity Mr Osborne will see fit to do what the SIC wants is another matter, but Mr Duncan said the chancellor had appeared genuinely interested in learning more about the situation. During an amicable exchange, his SIC colleague Alastair Cooper was also able to bend Mr Osborne’s ear about energy transmission charges.
“I took the opportunity to mention the housing debt in Shetland [to Mr Osborne],” Mr Duncan told The Shetland Times. “I told him this was a debt incurred in the oil era when a then Conservative government asked us to build houses here in the interest of the national economy, and they would pay for them – which they never did, because they were voted out of office.”
The councillor has now managed to open up dialogue with senior civil servants. As requested by treasury official Alex Furse, Mr Duncan has gathered information from convener Sandy Cluness and councillor Gussie Angus. He has also dug out a 15-year-old clipping from this newspaper highlighting a government pledge which has “never materialised to this day”.
In one of his periodic history lessons, Mr Cluness reminded everyone during Wednesday’s Full Council that the SIC had done the UK a huge service by chalking up the debt in the 1970s to build dozens of new homes to accommodate incoming oil workers.
The North Sea industry has been a colossal source of revenue for the UK treasury, and Mr Cluness added: “There is a national debt to us here.”
Delivering the anecdote in his trademark forthright manner in the town hall chamber on Wednesday, Mr Duncan unwittingly gave several councillors and officials a prolonged fit of the giggles.
The more solemn matter at hand, though, is how to tackle Shetland’s 1,000-strong waiting list for housing. As Mr Duncan pointed out, the new Total gas plant is adding greatly to demand for housing in the North Mainland. He wants the issue to have a higher profile because of its importance in maintaining and growing the population.
Members were discussing a joint report from housing chief Anita Jamieson and acting head of finance Hazel Sutherland. They expressed worry at the impact of the likely loss of a housing support grant from the Scottish government worth £1 million a year to the local authority.
The SIC is the only council which still receives the grant, and the SNP administration at Holyrood has signalled its intent to do away with it. The joint report said the proposed abolition was a “significant threat” to the viability of the council’s housing revenue account.
Members agreed that they will not accept the grant being withdrawn until “appropriate one-off or transitional arrangements” are put in place to safeguard the housing pot.
The council says it is continuing to work with Hjaltland Housing and the private sector to tackle the waiting list and seeking for “innovative solutions” to increase the supply of affordable housing.