The topic under discussion at Saturday’s Althing debate that “Lerwick is too big for its boots” was rejected by audience members following a debate which managed to sway opinions.
Before listening to the arguments, all by first-time speakers, eight audience members agreed with the statement and four disagreed. But after the debate, only five agreed and eight disagreed, with a sizeable number still undecided.
The debate was opened by Sandwick man Maurice Smith, speaking for the motion. Lerwick had always had an important place in Shetland, he said, thanks largely to its sheltered harbour and central location.
But its expansion from the 17th century onwards had encouraged “inward drift”, which inevitably affected country areas.
Recently the “slow slide to centralisation” had seen the registrar being based in Lerwick, and he was now forced to go to the Lerwick Post Office to collect a parcel, instead of being able to do so locally. He pleaded: “Stop the expansion and leave a decent quality of life to country folk.”
However Jim Anderson, speaking against the motion, argued that Lerwick’s population had remained more or less static for several decades. Although there were more houses now thanks to several new schemes such as Quoys, the occupancy rate was falling, as shown by the demand for single person and two-bedroom properties.
Private building in the country far outstripped any in Lerwick, he said, and bigger homes were being built outwith Lerwick.
Speaking for the motion, Ian Walterson said he believed in a thriving Lerwick but a strong Shetland needed thriving rural areas too. He asked whether having 400 new Hjaltland houses in north Staney Hill, recently agreed at a planning meeting, was fair: “Why not 200 in Lerwick and 200 elsewhere? Dunrossness is crying out for homes.”
Lerwick’s infrastructure is already struggling, he said, citing Lerwick Health Centre and the shortage of dentists, and: “The Sandy Loch looks dry in the summer.” He added that school rolls would suffer.
The final speaker, John Fraser, speaking against the motion, said he was from Aith and was pleased to see groups like CURE supporting rural education. He agreed that Lerwick’s infrastructure was “bursting at the seams” and centralisation was not doing the town any good. Any rift between town and country would be “distressing”, he added.
Audience members made their contributions – one said people wanted to stay in Lerwick because of transport costs, and another questioned why jobs could not be created outwith the town.
This was the last debate of the season, although a special “hustings” meeting will be held on 18th April.
It was also the occasion of the retirement of stalwart Florence Grains, stepping down from the committee which she joined in 1973.