The future of Shetland’s network of 52 public halls is in doubt after councillors refused grants today to replace the leaky roofs at Sullom and South Nesting.
Both hall roofs were said by council officials to be in a “critical” state with the Sullom hall possibly having to be closed in the near future on safety grounds.
The tough new approach effectively spells the end for such grants to groups of community volunteers which in the past would have sailed through Shetland Islands Council as a matter of routine. A number of other halls are said to be in similar urgent need of repairs.
In Lerwick Town Hall today Shetland North councillor Alastair Cooper was outvoted in his attempt to secure £75,000 for the Sullom and Gunnister Public Hall and £88,560 for the South Nesting Public Hall to add to the contributions raised from outside funders and the communities themselves.
He protested that it was “a sad day for the community” and questioned how the council could seek to appeal to the voluntary sector to help it run public services while simultaneously refusing to back voluntary efforts to keep local halls open.
Mr Cooper said the council had created expectation in the two communities that they would get a grant and they had done fund-raising in recent years to that end. At this late stage the council had to honour its commitments, he said.
The Nesting committee wants to replace the hall roof, improve insulation and provide caravan hook-up points and a toilet and shower room for visitors. It had managed to attract over £97,000 from outside funders towards the £197,900 cost and raised over £12,000 itself. There is a fear that the external funding could now be lost.
The Sullom and Gunnister committee wants to replace the roof and add a bar to the building at a total cost of £157,000 of which £44,700 has already been spent. It raised over £12,000 itself and was going to take out a £25,000 trustees’ loan, leaving £75,000 for the council to pay.
But the council is seeking to end as much of its so-called discretionary spending as it can in its bid to cut £30 million in spending over two years, leaving only what it has to do by law. Even though councillors had allocated money for this year to pay for jobs like hall improvements the social care committee decided it should not be spent.
The defeat was led by Shetland South councillor Allison Duncan who said there would be “absolute public outrage” if the grants were approved. He was “amazed” the reports had come forward at a time of severe cuts with schools facing closure, ferry jobs to be cut and no money for housing.
If the Sullom hall did have to close he said there would still be four active halls for the 841 people in Northmavine and another just down the road in Brae. Similarly, in Nesting there are two halls only 5.1 miles apart to serve just 570 people.
Mr Duncan said: “I’m sorry to say it but the day has come that the golden goose that used to lay the golden egg is no longer applicable.”
He won the vote 7-3 and a subsequent vote 6-4 after chairman Cecil Smith suggested a compromise of awarding half the grants and the rest as low-interest loans.
A number of councillors were uneasy about the choice that had been in front of them. North Isles member Gary Cleaver said it sent out a message that funding was available for lavish projects but the council was willing to slap volunteers in the face even though they were desperately trying to cut their cloth too.
Director of development Neil Grant was criticised for allowing his officials to write reports recommending that the halls be assisted yet he came before the committee to advise members to consider whether they could actually afford it. He warned that almost all Shetland’s halls probably had issues with repairs but it was not going to be feasible to help them in the coming years.
Among those with leaking roofs and other serious problems at the moment are Scalloway, Trondra and Mossbank.
A study is in the pipeline to assess all halls but Mr Grant said it had been delayed and may not be ready until well through next year.
Today’s battle may be a foretaste of the awkward wrangling to come as councillors fight over rapidly evaporating funds. Councillor Billy Fox said it was “an illustration of where we are as a council”, facing very difficult decisions.