There are growing fears that the council’s once trumpeted policy of decentralising and dispersing jobs around the isles is in danger of being left behind amid current financial pressures.
In June 2011, Alistair Buchan – then SIC chief executive – described decentralisation as “a huge opportunity for Shetland”, and made assurances that the authority was “absolutely committed” to the idea. “It is council policy,” he said, “and it will happen”. But less than two years on, there is little sign of progress on the issue.
At a meeting of the full council last week, Shetland Central representative Davie Sandison questioned whether the policy – which forms part of the authority’s ‘corporate improvement plan’ – had “gone down the pecking order in terms of priorities”. And speaking to The Shetland Times this week, Mr Sandison repeated that concern.
“When I came into the council,” he said, “one of the first things I asked people was where are we at with this policy – what’s the progress? And I didn’t get the impression that anything dramatic was happening or was likely to happen.
“What I was aware of were things like improving broadband connections – major improvements in making our communications better. I’m very pleased to hear all this stuff – I mean I fundamentally believe that if you want to have good, sound development policies then you have to have all that support in place.”
But, he added, “if you really do have a desire to be less centralised, to support the more peripheral areas of Shetland, to look at how you can be more efficient about how people work for the council – in other words, less travelling and more doing – then the way to do that, in my mind, is to be able to support more dispersed working arrangements, whatever that might be.”
The idea of providing remote offices and ‘hot desks’ for council staff around the islands has been raised often, and suggested as a plausible way of decentralising the authority’s workforce. So the recent announcement that Bluemull Development Company (BDC) in Yell is to close will have rung warning bells for all proponents of the initiative.
The not-for-profit enterprise has operated in the North Isles for three years, providing business support services to clients including Promote Shetland, the Centre for Creative Industries and North Isles Childcare. Crucially, it also offers a hot desk service to help enable remote working for council staff and others. The closure of the centre means not only a loss of three jobs in Yell; it is also a blow to the whole idea of decentralised working in Shetland.
North Isles councillor Steven Coutts acknowledged this week that, while cuts in funding to other groups that used BDC’s services may have marked the end for the company, providing facilities for remote workers had never been as successful as originally hoped.
He said: “A large part of the Bluemull Development Company’s plan was the remote working and the hot desks and I think … that’s the element of the business plan that fell down.”
“They [BDC] were more or less self-sufficient in terms of the other work that they’d managed to attract and the services that they were providing, but it was the remote working that didn’t work.”
He said the technology was there – the centre was attached to the council network and the Cable and Wireless Pathfinder network – and the intention was there. “So why weren’t more council staff able to use it?”
The fact is, he explained, technology can only ever be “part of the solution”.
“Management techniques and willingness to allow folk to work remotely is potentially the bigger barrier, in terms of managers wanting to see somebody sitting across from them in a room – it’s much easier to control and influence your staff that way. But I don’t know. I’ve worked remotely for years and never had a problem with it.”
According to Mr Sandison, decentralisation should not be seen as a problem. Instead, the council should embrace the opportunity to help outlying communities become more sustainable. The benefits could well outweigh the challenges.
He said: “If you’re wanting to get rid of some of the logjams we’ve got at commuting hours on some of the ferries, one of the ways to do that is to have fewer people coming out of the islands in the first place.
“If you’re supporting jobs in Yell, Unst, Fetlar, Whalsay, etc, then perhaps the pressure on some of the ferries, at eight o’clock in the morning or five o’clock at night, would be reduced.”
Mr Coutts agreed with the sentiment. “The more we can do to live and work closer together, to make it more sustainable”, he said, “the better.”
“It’s a solution where, to my mind, everyone benefits other than the oil companies, of course.”
As concerns are voiced with increasing regularity about the growing divide between town and country, this is not a subject likely to disappear anytime soon.
The council needs to recognise that it is a crucial issue, said Mr Sandison, and something to which the authority must do more than “just pay lip service”.
“It’s all very well having a policy,” he said, “but you have to then go out and implement it. You know, people can write policies till the cows come home, but you’ve actually got to have some action. You’ve got to have something that actually delivers, even if it’s only in small increments.
“I don’t expect things to turn around overnight, but over the length of this council I’d certainly expect to see some movement on it.”
A council spokeswoman this week refused to answer any questions on remote working, saying that it would be “inappropriate” to do so. The issue would be discussed again by councillors, she said, and no comment would be forthcoming before that time.