Shetland Islands Council is urging the UK and Scottish Governments to recognise the “critical” urgency of arranging talks to resolve its outstanding £40 million housing debt.
Political leader Gary Robinson said yesterday that the SIC had written to both governments, along with local authority umbrella group Cosla, having become frustrated at the length of time it is taking to broker a meeting.
With a “sticking plaster solution” only in place to cover interest payments on the debt in 2013/14, Mr Robinson said it was vital an agreement was struck before this autumn’s budget-setting exercise for 2014/15.
It comes as The Shetland Times’ petition aimed at getting the debt wiped out continues to grow steadily. Four weeks after it was launched, the petition now boasts 1,586 signatures, including 264 paper coupons. Numbers have doubled in the past fortnight.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott writes below that it is of “little consequence” to SIC tenants whether it is Westminster or Holyrood that writes off the debt. Both remain “desperate for oil revenues that flow through Sullom Voe”.
“The moral argument is unarguable,” Mr Scott writes. “If they all need Shetland so badly then it is time to write a cheque.
“All [tenants] know is that they pay the debt and if it is not written off then rents rise, repairs are cancelled and a spiral of housing decline will take place.”
Last week Highlands and Islands list MSP Jean Urquhart quibbled with Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael’s assertion that the Scottish Government should act to address the debt burden.
Mr Carmichael said the SNP government still received money to service the debt but chose to spend it elsewhere. Ms Urquhart countered that it is the UK state which has benefited from over £300 billion in revenue from North Sea oil, and called for “visible action… within the halls of Westminster.”
For his part, Mr Robinson said the debt pre-dated devolution, and he hoped the Scottish Government would “come on board and try to help us make that case to Westminster”.
He said: “Ultimately the pledges came from the Westminster government of the day, and I think you’d probably have quite a tough argument that those pledges and the debts incurred against the pledges were devolved to Scotland.”
Mr Robinson added that a date set aside for a meeting with the two governments “went by the wayside”, since when “it’s all gone very quiet”.
“We’ve just written again to try and push this along, and I’m due to be in Edinburgh at the end of the month. If I’ve not heard anything before then I’ll certainly be raising it with Cosla again, with a view to getting them to push for the meeting.”
He also warned that, while the council has gradually managed the debt down from £50 million thanks to favourable interest rates, even a one per cent increase would “have significant impact on the interest due to be paid on the debt”.
This newspaper has requested an interview with UK chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander. In opposition he actively campaigned for Highland Council’s housing debt to be cleared.
We have also asked to speak to Scottish housing minister Margaret Burgess. A spokeswoman for the minister said yesterday: “We are aware that [the SIC] is working hard to reduce its housing debt to a sustainable level, and the Scottish Government will continue to work with the council on this where that is possible.
“The housing minister is due to meet with members of the council over the coming months to discuss this situation in further detail.”
You can sign The Shetland Times’ petition here.