Council house tenants have reacted angrily to the prospect of a 10 per cent rent rise if the government does not write off the SIC’s £40 million housing debt.
Nearly 300 householders completed a Shetland Tenants’ Forum survey relating to the housing debt. The overwhelming majority did not see why they should pay for the failed promises of national politicians to write off the debt, which was chalked up building houses during the 1970s oil boom.
The UK government’s coffers have swelled to the tune of over £300 billion thanks to North Sea oil and gas. In her article in this week’s Shetland Times, independent Highlands and Islands list MSP Jean Urquhart describes it as “nothing short of a scandal” that none of the money has “found its way to cancelling the debt incurred by Shetland to facilitate the industry in the first place”.
This newspaper’s petition calling for government to write off the debt is gaining momentum, with more than 1,300 signatures (1,097 online and over 200 coupons) now gathered.
It is nearly six months since an SIC delegation visited Downing Street to plead its case. Three-way talks between Westminster, Holyrood and Lerwick Town Hall were promised but have yet to materialise, much to the council’s frustration.
Tenants’ forum worker Joann Johnson thanked everyone who had taken the time to fill out this month’s survey. She said the comments received “varied because some knew about the debt and some didn’t”.
Of those who responded, 63 per cent were aware of how the debt was incurred. Some wrongly thought it related to rent arrears, while others linked it to years of financial mismanagement by the local authority.
But virtually every respondent said they did not see why today’s 1,800 tenants should suffer because successive governments failed to keep their word.
Some said rents – among the highest for social housing anywhere in Scotland – had risen by more than a quarter since 2009 while their salaries were frozen.
Tenants were asked who they felt was responsible for paying the debt. Of 232 to answer that question, the majority (150) said it should be the UK government, while 46 said the Scottish government and 36 the SIC or tenants. A few suggested BP should be asked to help pay a portion given many of the homes were built for its workers.
Two weeks ago Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said the SNP government was still receiving money to service the debt but “choosing to spend it elsewhere’. He said First Minister Alex Salmond should not think of coming to Shetland “empty handed” for next month’s cabinet meeting.
Ms Urquhart hit back yesterday, saying Mr Carmichael and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander had yet to take “visible action” to help get the debt dropped.
She pointed out that Mr Alexander had vocally campaigned for Highland Council’s housing debt to be written off before joining the coalition in 2010.
But she recognised SIC convener Malcolm Bell’s call for both governments to “play their part in righting this historic wrong”.
Many local authorities in Scotland are burdened with housing debt, albeit not built up in the same fashion. However, at £22,958 for every council house, Shetland’s is the highest, with Midlothian the second highest at £20,470 and Falkirk lowest with just £4,428 per house.
You can sign the Shetland Times’ petition here.
“The government should have sorted it out years ago. After all they have got the profit from the oil!”
“As an OAP the thought that my rent could increase by at least 10% is frightening. What if I can’t pay it?”
“BP wanted the houses. They or the government should pay it.”
“I am already squeezed to the point where all my pennies are prisoners.”
“Why oh why do the tenants have to suffer?”