In a Right Slester
Poor decision making and a weak economic balance
The signs were there for all to see; there were no surprises. But like a rabbit in the headlights we stood watching, and failed to get out of the way.
With Shetland’s high level of dependence on the public sector, it was always obvious that cuts within that sector were going to have a significant impact, so when they came it was hardly a shock. But hopes that the private sector might step in to fill the void were sadly mistaken. The losses were just too much to cope with.
Unemployment, a declining population, fuel poverty, a lack of opportunities for young people: this is Shetland in 2031. It is a place that would, in some ways, be familiar to previous generations. Our traditional industries – fishing and crofting – have remained important for the Shetland community, and while there is still some outside investment, in aquaculture and in renewables projects, these have little community benefit other than the provision of a few jobs. Perhaps only the resurgence of the islands’ community spirit, to assist where people have the resources, has prevented an even greater social disaster from taking place. Today we find ourselves “atween da bed an da fire”.
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This is a small place, a long way from the markets – a long way from anywhere. This has always been true, and it is still true today. This makes us vulnerable, both to influences from the outside and to the stupidity and short-sightedness of our own decision makers. Unfortunately it is these internal factors that have proved our worst enemy, and now we are suffering the consequences.
We all saw it coming, that was the worst thing. We all knew our weaknesses, yet we had to sit back and watch as mistake after mistake was made, and those weaknesses became more and more exposed. As the public sector cuts started coming two decades back, there was precious little of the planning and development that was necessary to avoid a return to economic stagnation in the isles. Councillors, in their role as Charitable Trustees, pinned their hopes on a renewable energy project to lead us forward. Many millions were invested – the bulk of our community funds – but the returns came slowly, and were never quite as high as had been projected.
The timid, indecisive stagnation we see in the council chambers today is partly a result of this disappointment. The fear of further failure has created an atmosphere of virtual paralysis among decision makers, and this paralysis has spread, slowly, into the private sector. Businesses are wary of investing here – wary of a slumping economy and of a slow, ineffective bureaucracy. It has fallen instead to the voluntary sector to take up much of the slack left by a council in disarray.
Today this is a community dominated by older people. The young, particularly the best educated young people, most often leave and do not come back. There is little here to make them return, other than the fact it is home. Unemployment is considerably higher than the national average, and salaries are generally lower; the public sector, once the backbone of the Shetland economy, is now weak and entirely overstretched. Successive councils dipped further and further into the Reserve Funds to support services, perhaps in the hope that something, somehow, would come along eventually to replenish them. But it has not. Those funds are worth less than £40 million, and look unlikely to last another five years.
There is now a considerable proportion of the population beyond working age. This has increased the strain on care and health services, which, without investment in alternative models of healthcare, is now barely able to cope with demand. There are, naturally, far fewer people actively choosing to retire here – either incomers or ex-pats – than was the case two decades ago, and the trend towards depopulation, though much higher in younger age groups, is now also evident among older people, who are sometimes choosing to retire elsewhere, perhaps closer to children or other family members on the mainland. The population has now reached 18,000, and shows no sign of slowing in its decline.
Another outcome of the loss of young people has been the apparently permanent entrenchment of timidity and cautious conservatism among elected representatives. There is a general reluctance within the council to take risks or to invest in new technologies, particularly in virtual connectivity, which might have offered some economic hope to the more remote parts of the islands. The central aim of the past two administrations seems to have been protecting core industries, particularly fishing, aquaculture and agriculture, from further erosion, and preserving other perceived assets. To some degree this has been successful, but fishing especially has struggled to maintain its strength. Fish stocks have been inconsistent – a rise in sea temperatures is suspected to be behind this – and many fishermen are finding it hard to make a living.
Perhaps the greatest damage to this community over the past two decades – other than from public sector cuts – was inflicted by the rapidly increasing energy prices. Both the council and individuals underestimated our reliance on cheap oil and the potential impact of its disappearance. Both internal and external travel became steadily more expensive, and leaving the island became, for many, an unaffordable luxury. Fuel poverty now afflicts a very large proportion of the population, to the point where it no longer seems a meaningful label – it is now seen as more or less an inevitable part of life. In addition to these direct rises, imported food and other products are now hugely expensive, and locally produced goods have jumped in price too due to the costs involved in their production. Similarly, food exporters in aquaculture and agriculture have also been hit, since it is now harder for them to compete in the mainland market with the added costs of transportation. Some of the owners of Shetland salmon farms have pulled out of the islands now that profits have become so marginal; others have sold back to local businesses and individuals, who are now shouldering those risks themselves.
“Growing your own” has, under these circumstances, become widespread, and has proved to be extremely helpful; the consumption of local produce is higher now than it has been for many decades. But this too has had downsides, since the contrasts in fortunes between those who have access to land and those who do not has become so great. Just as in the jobs market, where the employed and the unemployed seem to be drifting further and further apart, there is now the steady development of a class structure here, to a degree that once would not have seemed possible.
People can’t afford to do up their own homes so much anymore, and there are no grants to help. Last January’s gales saw a lot of damage to roofs, and it’s only months later, with the help of neighbours and communities pulling together, that some folk are managing to get their homes watertight again.
Housing schemes are pretty run down – there isn’t the money anymore to replace kitchens or bathrooms, and folk just don’t take the same pride in their home now. There’s still as much demand as ever, and if you ever get offered a house you just have to hope it’s one of the very few twenty year old ones, as they’re mostly still half-decent inside. With the help of family and friends you can get the bare essentials. But some parts of the town are not places you’d walk around on your own now; crime, alcohol and drug use are rife.
Small businesses and entrepreneurs are struggling in the current climate of unaffordable energy, and so is tourism. The loss of skilled workers through out-migration has also hampered new businesses. Attracting new people to the islands is now seen as a real and very difficult challenge. Outside Lerwick, poor virtual connectivity makes it extremely difficult for companies to function effectively, particularly in the islands, where ferry services are now poor and infrequent, and the idea of fixed links is just a far off dream. This has meant that private sector work is concentrated, more than ever, in Lerwick. It has also meant that country areas have suffered most from depopulation, unemployment and the effects of poverty.
High oil prices have, on the positive side, increased the lifespan of the Sullom Voe terminal, and there has been a rise in deepwater activity west of Shetland. There have been some safety concerns over this, but so far we have been lucky. Unfortunately, the benefits of this activity are not as widely felt as they once were, and many employees at the terminal are now recruited from outside Shetland.
Nationally, Shetland is now represented in the Scottish Parliament along with Orkney in a single ward, but rumours that the islands’ council would be absorbed into a larger body have so far proved unfounded. There would be resistance to such a move, were it to be proposed, but there would not be surprise. There is an understandable feeling that Shetland’s views are given little consideration at a national level, but there is no real sense of how this situation might be changed. The islands now feel further away from power and real decision making than they have done for a very long time.
* * *
One positive outcome of Shetland’s economic decline has been the resurgence of a more community-minded way of life – a return, perhaps, to the values of the pre-oil era. In country areas especially, crime is still virtually non-existent (though this is not the case in Lerwick), vulnerable people are generally cared for within the community and work is often shared among neighbours. While several of the country shops closed more than a decade ago, some have now reopened; shopping trips to town are no longer affordable, so these businesses have found themselves viable once again.
The social life of the island has also been healthy: public halls are well used and traditional music and crafts are thriving. It is possible that there will be some economic growth in this creative sector, but currently these are largely non-financial activities.
Two decades back, there were massive splits and disagreements over the future of the community. Much time and energy was expended arguing over the future of the economy, over the role of renewables and over control of the Charitable Trust. But time seems to have largely healed these rifts, or perhaps just made them irrelevant. In part, this can be put down to an avoidance of difficult issues by the council, but there has also been a sense that our problems are now largely beyond our control, which has had an oddly restorative effect. Shetland is no longer a place with any real feeling of hope for the future, but nor is it a place of utter despondency. There is, instead, a kind of resignation to the current state as being, simply, “da wye hit is”.
- 26th July 2031 - Reflections of a Young Person
- 28th July 2031 - Fuel Poverty campaigners appeal to Holyrood
- 29th July 2031 - "Forgotten" North Isles
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