Generally, the term decentralisation refers to dispersing political decision making away from centralised government and into the hands of local authorities and communities. The current UK government have embraced the concept – Greg Clark, the Minister of Decentralisation, is committed to devolving power from “Whitehall to town hall” and, thereafter, down to communities, and a pre-election David Cameron cited plans to grant local authorities a new “general power of competence”. The now Prime Minister followed up his pledge with, “They [local councils] can do anything they like as long as it’s legal”. These are potentially worrying governmental promises for anyone who has been following the antics at the Lerwick Town Hall over the past year or so.

In Shetland, however, decentralisation is more commonly used in reference to more tangible commodities, such as jobs and housing, and is often used in opposition to all things Lerwick-centric.

So what are the SIC doing about decentralisation and the new powers the government are to devolve to us? Gary Robinson thinks he and his fellow councillors “need to buck up [their] ideas” on decentralisation, as reported in the Shetland Times last month. The councillor, angered at reports of perceived disproportionate number of new houses being built in Lerwick at the expense of outlying areas, thinks Shetland is only paying lip service to decentralisation. He was back up by colleagues Florence Grains who remarked that the term is merely “something nice that trips off the tongue” and Bill Manson who saw his North Mainland constituency ending up “somewhere near a desert” and hoped we can “save ourselves having to cram Lerwick ever tighter”. In the same article Iris Hawkins stated that her Burra constituents were “crying out” for housing and are worried about “losing their young folk” as a result.

There is significant will amongst the Shetland population to support outlying areas and maintain ruralities. In 2005 the SIC published the results of the “Your Voice” and “Have Your Say” public consultations, with decentralisation highlighted as “needed to keep our culture thriving”. Many members of the public noted the requirement for jobs in rural areas and the possibilities of ‘remote working’ to avoid the trek to Lerwick.

Opposition to centralisation has been an ongoing theme during the recent “Blueprint for Education” public consultation and the discourse on the potential of closing rural schools. Evidence includes the SIC’s report on a Blueprint meeting in Mid Yell which noted that “Respondents called for the SIC to make a commitment to help sustain rural communities and encourage decentralisation of jobs and services from Lerwick”. The Aith School report noted that “There was a lot of discussion about centres of excellence, and decentralising provision from Lerwick into the junior highs.” Closing rural schools is certainly not a decentralist policy.

So what is the really SIC doing about decentralisation? They do make mention of it in a number of documents and have policies in place designed to fend off the tendencies for social and economic drift towards the ‘central belt’ of Lerwick and Scalloway. For example, the current SIC Structure Plan states that the council seeks to “reduce the need to travel through decentralisation of development opportunities, thereby reducing commuting” and our new council head honcho Alistair Buchan has expressed a desire to turn the tide on the proliferation of SIC jobs based in Lerwick.

However, the evidence of these policies being followed is perhaps harder to spot (I’m struggling to think of examples of decentralisation), and our protesting councillors may be right about lip service payments.

Tucked away in the Appendices of the Shetland Transport Strategy produced in 2008 is this little gem, “Decentralisation policies do not necessarily appear to have been implemented…. The policy has the risk of worsening accessibility overall to services and jobs if not carefully pursued.”

Take for example the new £6 million SIC super office currently under construction at the North Ness in Lerwick. I can’t imagine a better example of centralisation. 3,000 square metres of new local authority office space slap bang in the middle of town.

So here’s a flight of fancy – why not house some SIC staff in the rural schools they seem determined to close, move Shetland College to the North Ness and use the existing college buildings to house SIC offices. Such a swap would ease traffic in central Lerwick, provide students with access to public transport at the Viking Bus Station (and respite from the dreary trudge to Gremista) and situate the college next to other buildings with complimentary educational facilities such as Mareel and the Museum and Archives.

Councillor Jim Henry stated in April that the new office would make Lerwick waterfront an attractive and vibrant area. I’m not sure how a large office block, in an area dominated by office blocks, will add to the vibrancy. The “Shetland Culture Quarter Masterplan” includes a council priority to “Provide a single Council Campus” at North Ness. Perhaps a College Campus, rather than a “Council Campus”, would be more suited to a Culture Quarter in central Lerwick and would go some way towards the SIC being able to tick their own decentralisation box.

Article for Shetland Life magazine – November 2010