Centralisation not good for town, Althing debate hears

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.


Add Your Comment
  • John Tulloch

    • March 16th, 2015 10:06

    The ongoing programme of centralisation of servies and facilities in Lerwick is a self-fulfilling prophecy – more jobs and facilities lead to demand for houses, lead to more jobs and demand for more facilities, and so on…

    In Argyll, major council departments are located away from the council headquaters, at all points of the compass – Lochgilphead, Oban, Dunoon, Campbeltown, Helensburgh.

    That has been done to avert depopulation of remote areas and there’s no reason whatsoever why the SIC couldn’t do the same.

    Why couldn’t there, for example, be offices at any of Sandwick, Scalloway, Brae, Aith/Bixter, Burra/Trondra and the North Isles?

    • Robert Duncan

      • March 16th, 2015 13:58

      I’d be interested to see the costs involved with doing things this way. I note that Elected Members in Argyll and Bute claimed an average of £3324.36 in mileage costs in 2013-14. Our own councillors in 2012-13 (the latest figures I could find) claimed an average £1287.55.

      If that difference is played out among other Council employees it would seem significantly more expensive to spread Council buildings across the authority.

      That’s not to say it wouldn’t have value, but the cost/benefit should be very strongly considered, especially in the current environment.

      • Robert Duncan

        • March 16th, 2015 13:59
      • John Tulloch

        • March 16th, 2015 16:37

        @Robert Duncan,

        Do have a look at the map (see link) and you’ll discover that the whole of Shetland could disappear into the Kintyre Peninsula, alone, or Islay/Jura.

        Despite the central location of the council HQ in Lochgilphead, the distances councillors have to travel to attend meetings are much greater.

        Furthermore, in these days of high-tech communications, I see no need for any more than a handful of council employees to travel regularly between the main offices.

        And there could be major savings from freeing up land and buildings in Lerwick for sale or re-development.

        It works very well for us, we pay our council tax to the Finance Dept., in Campbeltown, about 100 miles away – never a problem.

      • Robert Duncan

        • March 17th, 2015 0:24

        Yes, I’m well aware of the geography, thanks. I was only saying it should be properly considered and that any move should be strategic and rational, rather than just political posturing to appease those demanding decentralisation. I recognise there may be value in it but a proper assessment is required.

      • John Tulloch

        • March 17th, 2015 9:28

        I wouldn’t have it done any other way than by a “proper assessment” which, incidentally, rules out the kind we’ve witnessed with the grandly-titled “Blueprint for Education”.

        And we won’t get such an assessment if we don’t argue for it.

      • Robert Duncan

        • March 17th, 2015 12:40

        Education reviews would have been far more productive in far less time had there been less political posturing (from all sides) and more rational debate. Sadly views became so polarised so early on that nobody seemed willing to even consider the other sides arguments.

        I’m not completely against decentralisation of Council departments but I would be very interested to see a full review of the change from Argyll and Bute and in particular an assessment of how much it has cost them (or earned, if there has truly been a positive knock on effect to the economy).

      • John Tulloch

        • March 17th, 2015 17:30


        The way council departments are located in Argyll has been the same for longer than I’ve lived here (i.e. more than 15 years) and I’m unaware of anyone arguing for centralising them.

        Some A&B councillors and the most senior officers, quite rightly, come under fire over their actions which are often bizarre, however, the departments themselves seem to “chug along”, quite reasonably and in Argyll, where depopulation is a major issue, distributing them around the A&B area provides a powerful bulwark against that for the communities in which they are located.

        I also think that locating departments like, say, education, at Brae or Sandwick would provide a wider perspective for decision-making than, if I may say, the arguably, more myopic one we see at present.

  • John Tulloch

    • March 16th, 2015 10:09

    Why doe the Shetlamd Charitable Truat HQ need to be in Lerwick?


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