The SIC this week agreed a controversial package of up to £600,000 to rescue Mareel, but political leader Gary Robinson insisted yesterday it had not written a “blank cheque” to Shetland Arts.
Against a backdrop of massive cuts to schools, ferries and roads budgets, the decision provoked a furious reaction among some in the community. There were some particularly heated debates on social media sites.
The issue was debated in private for two-and-a-half hours at Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon, before members voted 11-9 in favour of a deal.
In a short statement issued on Wednesday evening, the council said it had approved “bridging finance” to help Shetland Arts settle its outstanding bills for Mareel. That prompted confusion as to precisely what form the assistance will take.
Mr Robinson told The Shetland Times: “We are not writing a blank cheque. It is working capital, but it’s working capital that we control. We only release that if they come to us with an invoice and we have justification as to why that money needs to be spent. We can’t really describe it as a loan, and it’s certainly not a grant.”
Mr Robinson seconded councillor Jonathan Wills in moving that councillors approve the package. Both were among the project’s
most outspoken detractors four years ago, but each said the move was necessary to protect the council’s £6 million investment in the venue.
Asked if he felt the decision would make justifying school closures and ferry cuts doubly difficult to defend, Mr Robinson replied: “I’ve got that loud and clear, but I would hope that by February we would have resolved this [Mareel] one way or another.
“This isn’t a decision that we’ve taken lightly by any means. We have been put in a difficult position, but it’s a situation we’ve inherited and we needed to deal with. I do honestly feel that we reached the right decision.
“I would hope that in the not too distant future, we could make it absolutely clear and transparent why we’ve done this. I want it to be all out in the open, but clearly when you’ve got live cases in the Court of Session it restricts me in what I can say on the subject – that’s a frustration for me.”
One source said the “stark reality” was that walking away may well have led to the collapse of Shetland Arts, Mareel not living to see 2013 and dozens of people being jobless as a consequence.
North Mainland councillor Andrea Manson, one of the nine to vote against, was “distressed” and “personally aggrieved” by what she viewed as a “disgraceful” decision. She saw no fairness in agreeing to assist Shetland Arts but not to “help the peerie village halls”.
The news was welcomed by Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons, who said its board was “seeking an assurance” that the council’s offer would still allow it to draw down additional grants tallying £562,000 from Creative Scotland, the European Regional Development Fund and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
Meanwhile the dispute over Mareel’s construction flared up again this week, with Shetland Arts stating the contract administrator had put the bulk of an 18-month delay down to “the actions or inaction” of DITT.
A war of words has been raging between the two organisations throughout the year, with legal action ongoing to determine why the building only opened on 25th August. The original completion date was January 2011.
In a statement issued yesterday, Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons was pulling no punches, saying that if DITT had “managed the project diligently and expediently” then Mareel’s doors would have been open in July last year.
That drew an angry response from DITT director Peter Tait, who described the claims as “wild, inaccurate and desperate”.
Full coverage and reaction to the funding decision in this week’s Shetland Times.