The North Isles, Northmavine and the outer isles have all been designated as fragile areas in a report for the Tackling Inequalities Commission that met in Lerwick on Wednesday.
The commission heard from Glasgow University research fellow Victoria Sutherland, who wrote the report Shetland’s Fragile Areas. This investigated the impact of geographical and social isolation, and ways to overcome these challenges.
Four key indicators were used to measure fragility – population change, average unemployment rate, average household income and drive time to the nearest “mid-sized service centre” (with a supermarket, secondary school and health services).
Five distinct fragile zones were identified – Northmavine, Yell, Unst and Fetlar, Symbister in Whalsay and Whalsay and Skerries (excluding Symbister).
Islands with a population of 300 or less were also included, such as Fair Isle, Foula and Papa Stour.
The fragile areas had an average travel time to Lerwick of 111 minutes.
Other areas were identified “potentially fragile”, with at least a 20 minute drive to the nearest mid-sized service centre, and a 40 minute drive to the nearest “major” service centre.
The report found that 14.8 per cent of Shetland’s population live in fragile areas, and the population in these areas declined by 3.2 per cent between 2001 and 2011. All five fragile areas had a decline in young people (under the age of 24) in this period, and in Unst and Fetlar the decline in the working age population was nearly 20 per cent.
This contrasted with the increase in population in Shetland as a whole of 5.4 per cent.
The report found that it costs more to live in the fragile areas – between 10 per cent and 40 per cent more than the rest of the UK – due to the cost of additional fuel for travel, ferry fares and prices in local shops.
In 2013 the “minimum income standard” in a fragile area for a single person was £321 per week and £709 for a family of four, whereas in Lerwick the figures were £263 and £596 respectively.
Besides economic challenges, the report found that residents in fragile areas also faced problems such as loneliness and a sense of isolation, with only two-thirds of residents feeling “part of the community”.
According to the report, loneliness is known to increase the risk of depression, increase the risk of dementia by 64 per cent and a risk of early mortality.
The lack of broadband connectivity was also a factor in isolation, according to SIC policy manager Emma Perring. She said:
“It’s yet another barrier as society becomes more digitised.”
Broadband was one area where inequalities could be tackled, and the Scottish government’s proposed Islands Bill would ensure the evidence gathered would be taken into account.
SIC community worker Pat Christie said the energy and determination of locals to work for their areas was inspiring, and “communities inspire [other] communities”. But, she added, communities need a “leader”.
The next commission meeting will be on 23rd November, covering education, skills and employment.
Six sessions are being held between July and December, with a final report, with possible solutions, to be published in March.