Deserted outer isles? (Arthur Holroyd)

Having spent our summer holidays in Shetland almost every year since well before the transforming days of oil and ro-ro ferries, my wife and I still see ourselves as trying-to-be well-informed friends and supporters of Shetland, and it is on this basis that we express our concern about the future of some of the outer isles.

In Skerries, for instance, where 60 or so people live, we understand that part of the school is under threat, the local fire service is being closed, the future of the regular air service is in doubt, and the frequency of the ferry service will doubtless soon come under review.

When each public service is assessed individually there may well be a case to be argued, from the service funder’s viewpoint, that the current method of provision does not amount to best value for money, and a reduction in a locally provided service then looks attractive.  In some cases, but by no means in all, life on Skerries and other isles may well not suffer directly from some reductions in local service provision, but a vital consideration must be the resulting loss of income to island residents, since local provision almost always means income to island residents and, in the absence of alternative employment opportunities, withdrawal makes them the poorer.

Individual service reviews in Shetland appear to take place in isolation from each other, but their cumulative effect is not simply a reduction in locally provided services but, even more important for the future of each island, a serious loss of income, on which each island’s prosperity depends.

For this reason we would argue that reductions in locally provided services in the outer isles should never be decided in isolation from each other and, unless Shetland’s policy-makers envisage a future with several outer isles deserted, every reduction in a locally provided service should be firmly linked to other realistic measures put in place that are aimed at sustaining the income of the outer isles. For islands such as Skerries the matter appears to be urgent if its future is to be sustained; for at least one of the other outer isles it looks to the outsider as if it may already be too late.

During our stays in Shetland over the years many people have said to us, kindly, that we have visited more of Shetland than most of its residents. With this breadth of experience we would urge all those living on the main island, who form the majority of council tax payers, to acknowledge that the provision of services to the people of the outer isles will usually be more expensive than on the mainland, and that on the more distant isles the range of opportunities for earning a living is far more restricted. In such circumstances support for effective measures, whatever form they may take, to sustain the income of the residents on the outer isles, is an essential priority; and hopefully such support will be forthcoming from the whole community.

Arthur Holroyd
Nether Poppleton, York


Add Your Comment
  • Andrew Gibson

    • October 15th, 2012 23:18

    That is a very well written piece Arthur and makes a lot of sense. However, the fact is affordabaility is all encompassing at the present time and many Shetland residents, whether on the outer islands or the mainland, are struggling with their own personal economics. There are only 22,000 of us and we are too small in number to sustain such a cost base.
    That said, I am sure those on the outer islands would be more than grateful if you, other residents of Nether Poppleton and further afield into York, along with the many other Shetland visitors from around the country and world, were to contribute directly to the upkeep of the islands over and above your regular holiday expenditure.
    The facts are that if there was a visitor tax of say, £50 per person, that was directly used to support the outer island communites, the number of visitors would reduce dramatically.
    The Council also, does not have the flexibility at present to raise the Council Tax due to the SNP imposed freeze and even if it did, it could only do so in a sensible manner and in accordance to what residents are able to afford. Even as a regular visitor you are not best placed to comment of the economics of individual Shetland families lives and how the Council has to manage the whole community of 22,000 residents.
    People have to be able to afford the costs for them to be sustainable, whether they live here or just visit.

  • Mark Ritch

    • October 16th, 2012 9:46

    Unfortunately Andrew, doing what’s affordable is unlikely to deliver what’s sustainable. The two are often (wrongly) conflated and Arthur very eloquently illustrates the contradiction. Sniping at him over visitor taxation doesn’t do you any favours either.
    The reality is that losses of jobs and services in remote communities leads inexorably to depopulation, a further erosion of the rates base, further cuts, unsustainable service delivery and so on – this applies to the mainland as well, of course. Contrinuing on a cost cutting exercise is likely to leave Shetland with nothing to spend money on – a laudable outcome for the accountants no doubt but less of a victory for the communities affected.
    The idea that costs can be cut without damage to the social and economic wellbeing of the isles is a delusion. Only 22,000 of us you reckon? There used to be a fair few more and the way it’s going, there’s going to be a damn sight less.

  • Andrew Gibson

    • October 16th, 2012 16:12

    Mark, the theory you present is that the outer islands is strangely worrying. It is a fact that there is less money, therefore the present systems are not affordable and based on your opening sentence; it is not sustainable. In other words they should already be depopulating.
    However I believe and I’m sure many islanders also believe, you are wrong, the outer islands are not doomed. The people of those islands along with the financiers will have to find a different sustainability route if they are to survive. If affordability and sustainability are not interdependent then the financial scholars of the last 200 years have been wrong and they remain wrong today within the SIC. It is not wrong, simply because it doesn’t give you the answer you want.
    Affordability is all about ensuring there are funds to sustaining a Shetland Islands community not every individual populated island. If one family lived on Outer Skerries is that good reason to maintain a ferry service and school? If not, what about 10, 20? Where do you draw the line? The sustainability you refer to is about maintaining the status quo, that is pipe dream and one that has to be let go of. The available funds are being dramatically reduced and will continue to fall in the next few years; the Council has to find an affordable solution that allows Shetland,as a whole, to be sustainable. These two are not wrongly conflated and to continue to spend at the levels necessary to maintain the present structure would be unaffordable.
    I have previously suggested that tourists and mainland residents pay far more for the use of the ferries than the outer island residents. This would add to the available funds, but it is not fitting for a visitor to say all Shetland residents should contribute more to the sustainability of the outer islands. Would the 8,000 residents of Lerwick be happy that they lose their sports centre to enable a proper ferry service to run to and from Outer Skerries? Should south mainland residents forego any access to social care services so schooling can be maintained in north mainland? Do you think that is a fair way for the SIC to spend funds? I have huge empathy for the plight of the residents of the outer isles and am happy to accept that it costs more to maintain facilities there than it does on the mainland and I am in no way deluded that cuts will have a significant impact. For example, I do not believe the Whalsay school should close, but I am also not blind to the fact that things have to change.
    As regards to the population of Shetland, it is approx 22,000 and has been for around 30 years, prior to that it was much lower. You have to go back to the 1920’s to find a time when the population was more than 22,000. You cannot live in a time that happened 90 years ago, you need to move on.

  • Mark Ritch

    • October 19th, 2012 4:42

    Andrew, I’m referring to the sustainability of life in the outer isles rather than simply the sustainablility of budgets. My apologies if I failed to make that sufficiently clear.

    I’m not sure that I claimed the outer isles were “doomed”, merely substantially compromised and ill served by the current debate. Budget cuts have a greater impact in peripheral areas than at the core as these areas are already struggling with distance from markets, employment sources and services. Affordability notwithstanding, this needs to be taken account of by decision makers.

    Cutting on the basis of affordability is cutting on the basis of a snapshot of circumstances at any given time. Spending decisions need to be long term and cuts to service need to be balanced with a long term strategy for economic growth and, yes, sustainability. that considers the impact of loss of services. Anything less runs the risk of turning communities that are net contributors to the Shetland economy into a net drain and precipitating a further spiral of cuts. (Christ, I’m getting burst of deja vu just talking like this.)

    I don’t know about “financiers” but economists have been aware of the value of reflationary approaches to economic management for at least the same 200 years and the 20th century is littered with examples. Depends if you’re a naive Keynesian or a frothing monetarist I suppose.

    I’m sure your suggestions re differential fare structures on ferries are appreciated, for the record, the North Isles ferry groups were making similar suggestions as long ago as 1998 including peak and off peak fares, resident’s fares to be on the basis of a purchased ‘railcard’ style entitlement, etc, etc. I’ll leave it to you to find out where those suggestions ended up. The residents of the outer isles aren’t blind to the need for change either and have been so for a long time before the current debate kicked off.

    My point, for the sake of clarity, is that a poorly thought through emphasis on affordability in the short term is likely to further compromise the potential for economic development in the outer isles in the medium to long term – not much chance of your somewhat vague “different sustainability route” being followed if consideration isn’t given to those requirements now.

    Would this mean a school with a single pupil being kept open? Possibly – if that were linked to an economic development and population growth strategy. (If it’s not, we can only assume the educational decision makers are merely killing time) Should a sports centre close to support a ferry service? Yes, if that ferry service is supporting industries that support jobs and contribute to Shetland’s economic growth. Social care in the South vs education in the North? Both should remain but we might not be able to fund the fiddle festival, etc, etc. Decisions need to be based on what is likely to sustain economically viable life in Shetland as a whole with an emphasis on what actually makes or enables the making of money.

    Fretting over what goes out is no more than good fiscal sense, failing to take steps to make sure that more comes in? Less so.

    Regarding population, the area under discussion here is the outer isles, not Shetland as a whole. While the population as a whole is static, it’s also older and less economically active. This is true in the isles – which actually have suffered depopulation linked to loss of employment – as it is to mainland Shetland. Unst’s population for example, is about half what is was in 97 – not all due to Saxavord either.

    In any case, I’m not quite sure how you manage to characterise a static (albeit aging, less economically active) population as some sort of indicator of success. Generally speaking, areas with active economies tend to have growing populations, the fact that Shetland is merely treading water should have the demographers in a sweat. If we were talking money rather than bodies, this would be a cut ‘in real terms’.

    “Living in a time that happened 90 years ago?” No Andrew, unlike the slash and burn brigade, I’m looking past the next ten minutes. I need to move on? You need to keep up.

  • Andrew Gibson

    • October 19th, 2012 16:38

    Somewhat inaccurate about Mark about my ability to ‘keep up’ Mark, as clearly my views are the same as the majority of the SIC and elected councillors. I would suggest I am keeping up and would rather sit at their table than those of the spend, spend, spend brigade. I am content with my achievements and equally so with my ability to alter my future; that is a far cry from the doomsday scenarios and economic failures presently being heard of the outer isles. They must look inward and stop blaming others for their failings.
    Let’s stick with Unst as you have brought them into the equation, if Unst is a depopulating and failing island and all this is despite significant investment from the SIC, the armed forces and others over the last 30 years, then how is that solely the fault of the Council and the slash-and-burn brigade. Unst has independent councillors and an economic plan to sustain the islands finances should have been adopted at that time. If it was and it has not worked, then either the plan was a poor one or the island is not investable.
    I am not an emotionalist, but base my evaluations on pure economics. I am not a “frothing monetarist” as that indicates emotion, but I’d rather be seen as heartless than a wasteful spendthrift. I have no doubt you will not understand that. I expect my Council to be similar and to provide services at best value, as is their statutory duty. You clearly believe that continuing to pump money into those places would make them sustainable, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. I do not concur with that view and fortunately neither do the elected Council members any more. They are not pulling the plug completely and again, sticking with Unst, the closure of Baltasound school is no longer going to happen. Something, you may be surprised to hear, I fully agree with. I also made no reference to an aging population being a characteristic of success, so it would be appreciated if you didn’t associate your concerns with things I’ve said.
    It is clear our views on this matter are vastly different and your views have held sway for many decades within the elected council members. Obviously this hasn’t worked or we would not be in the dire financial position we are now in. It is now time for a different approach and my views are obviously similar to those of the decision makers and will now get an airing. Difficult times and decisions for many people lie ahead, but overall the most crucial thing is that we can afford the programme of services.


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