SNP cabinet visit: housing debt and constitution top of SIC’s agenda
SIC convener Malcolm Bell says the local authority hopes to use this week’s visit of senior Scottish Government figures to make the case for its historic housing debt to be dropped – and for the isles to be handed more autonomy.
SNP ministers are due to arrive at Sumburgh on Wednesday ahead of its monthly cabinet meeting, to be held at Mareel on Thursday.
The council recently teamed up with its counterparts in Orkney and the Western Isles to launch “Our Islands, Our Future”. The document is designed to seek further powers for the three island groups regardless of which way next year’s referendum on Scottish independence goes.
Mr Bell said he was delighted Shetland had been included in the cabinet’s summer itinerary. Visiting politicians will include First Minister Alex Salmond, finance secretary John Swinney and education minister Mike Russell.
“It provides a valuable opportunity for the council, and indeed the wider community, to liaise with the First Minister and his cabinet secretaries,” Mr Bell said.
“As well as promoting what’s good about Shetland, we plan to use the visit to raise a number of issues including Shetland’s historic housing debt, homelessness and constitutional future. I have specifically asked for a meeting with the First Minister over the housing debt.”
This newspaper launched a campaign in late May aimed at persuading the UK and Scottish governments to take action on the £40 million housing debt. If nothing is done, council house tenants face a rent rise of 10 per cent or more from April 2014.
A petition directed at both governments has garnered 2,233 signatures to date. It is aimed at Holyrood housing minister Margaret Burgess and Westminster chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.
Mr Bell said: “Both governments are trying to pass the buck on this saying it is an issue for the other government. What we are saying is ‘no, you both have a locus in it’, and we have to come to a joint solution.
“I feel we have a very strong and unique case to have this issue dealt with once and for all, so that we can avoid having to raise council house rents to unacceptably high levels and build desperately needed new housing.”
It is understood Scottish civil servants have grown “very concerned” about the housing debt issue after the new council brought it back onto the political agenda.
This newspaper has been seeking, without success, an interview with Mr Alexander – who campaigned to have Highland Council’s housing debt dropped before taking office – for the past two months.
In late June a Treasury spokeswoman acknowledged that Mr Alexander had met an SIC delegation at Downing Street in December to “better understand their concerns”. But he believes it is down to Holyrood and Lerwick Town Hall to sort it out.
The spokeswoman said: “He hopes that the Scottish Government and Shetland council can find an appropriate solution.”
Contrary to Mr Alexander’s stance, several councillors – including political leader Gary Robinson – are clear that it is primarily the UK government’s responsibility because the debt was incurred in the 1970s and 1980s when housing was a Westminster matter.
Responding to the petition last month, Scottish housing minister Margaret Burgess said Shetland was “fortunate to have access to financial reserves and I’d encourage the council to continue to review how these could play a part in their financial plans.”
Ms Burgess did say she looked forward to meeting with the SIC “over the coming months” to discuss the situation. She is due to visit the isles in early August.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he wanted Mr Salmond to “respond positively” on two key issues – addressing the housing debt and ending “centralisation”.
He called for “commitment after commitment” from the SNP administration – not “photo opportunity after photo opportunity”.
“The first action should be to cancel the housing debt hitting Shetland’s housing tenants and the second is to stop the removal of power from island councils which is resulting in the centralisation of public services,” Mr Scott said.
He wants to ensure “all areas of Shetland get a fair crack of the whip” when it comes to benefiting from the current of frenzy oil and gas activity in and around the isles.
Mr Scott believes Unst would benefit greatly should the oil companies explore the use of Baltasound Airport for the new Rosebank oil and gas field to the west of Shetland.
“Baltasound was used by the oil industry for offshore flights in the past,” he said. “Now with so much expansion I am asking that Chevron fully explore that potential again.”