Now councillor presses Treasury chief secretary on housing debt
A councillor who last year button-holed the chancellor and urged him to write off Shetland’s £40.5 million housing debt after spotting him, by chance, at Inverness Airport, has repeated the trick.
But this time it was George Osborne’s second in command at the Treasury, Danny Alexander, whom Allison Duncan turned his attention to while waiting for a flight at the Highland capital’s airport.
Shetland built up a massive debt in the oil era when the then Conservative government called on the council to build dozens of new houses to help boost the national economy and provide homes for incoming oil workers.
Tory chancellor Kenneth Clarke pledged to plug the funding gap in 1996, but the party was voted out of office in the following year’s General Election and was unable to make good on the promise – prompting complaints in the town hall today that Shetland had been “crucified” by the UK government.
With the Tories back in power, Mr Duncan has been able to put pressure on the government to deliver on the promise.
Mr Duncan questioned Mr Osborne on the payment as they waited for separate flights at the Highland capital in December.
But speaking at today’s executive committee meeting, Mr Duncan said it emerged during a recent chance meeting with Mr Alexander – also at Inverness Airport – that the chief secretary to the Treasury was in the dark about Shetland’s “special case”.
Mr Alexander had been left “uncomfortable” by an exchange of words, said Mr Duncan.
“I met Mr Osborne and challenged him at the airport at Inverness some time ago.
“We got a reply some weeks ago, and that letter was signed by Danny Alexander.
“That letter was very discouraging. One of the statements he gave me was that he did not realise we had a special case. Quite obviously some civil servent has written the letter and he has signed it.
“When I challenged him he was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable.”
He called on the Westminster government to pay a visit to Shetland so the coalition can gain an understanding of the issues facing Shetland’s housing shortage. Around 950 people remain on the waiting list for a new home.
Councillor Jonathan Wills said he was pleased Mr Duncan had taken the issue up with Mr Alexander.
“This is deplorable … for a minister to say he doesn’t know about it. The government has crucified the council’s efforts to house people in Shetland that needed to be housed.”
Members agreed that, as a whip in the Westminster coalition, the matter should also be raised with isles MP Alistair Carmichael.