A six-strong SIC delegation which visited Downing Street yesterday afternoon in an effort to persuade the UK government to drop its £40 million housing debt said the talks were positive.
The UK state has never made good on previous governments’ promise to repay the debt, which was incurred to build houses for incoming construction workers when the oil industry first came to Shetland in the 1970s.
Political leader Gary Robinson, convener Malcolm Bell, councillors Cecil Smith and Allison Duncan, chief executive Mark Boden and housing chief Anita Jamieson all made the trip to London. They met the government’s chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander.
Mr Alexander agreed to look again at the details of the case, and will be making representations with Ministers at Holyrood on this issue.
After the meeting Council Convener Malcolm Bell said: “It was clear that the minister was genuinely engaging with the substance of the points we raised with him. The fact that he now has undertaken to go back to the Scottish Government and make clear the scale of the problem this issue is causing is to be welcomed.
“While the legal position of the UK Treasury is uncertain, the Minister undertook to look again at what help might be available, and work with all sides to help find a resolution.”
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael MP, who as a member of the coalition helped set up the meeting, said it was a positive meeting. “In a post-devolutionary world, the treasury may be restricted in terms of a direct intervention, but there is a genuine political understanding of the problem and the difficulties that this debt is causing for Shetland. The council clearly has a strong case to make here, and the convener and other councillors put their points across forcefully.
“I don’t think any of the delegation went into the meeting expecting to leave with a cheque. What we needed to see from the minister and his officials was a willingness to listen, and a commitment to work with us to find the best way forward. That is what we needed from the meeting and that is what we got.”
Councillor Cecil Smith, chairman of the SIC’s Social Services Committee, added: “I think it is fair to say that the degree of engagement we have seen from the Scottish Government on this issue is not what it might have been. The fact that Mr Alexander will now go back to ministers at Holyrood will help keep this high on the political agenda.”
A housing support grant paid via the Scottish government to cover interest repayments on the debt is being brought to an end. Mr Carmichael has been making the case that the money could be paid directly from the treasury.
Council tenants in Shetland pay some of the highest social housing rents in the UK, and the loss of the grant could see the rents increase further unless a solution can be found.
The council said the debt placed “an unfair burden on the tenants of Shetland” and was limiting future investment in housing.