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Growing Shetland’s population

Written by Tom Wills

April 21, 2021

At a time of climate crisis, it might sound strange to set population growth as a goal, but in Shetland and the communities within Shetland, the benefits would be significant.

A larger population can support a higher level of public services: it’s harder to provide quality healthcare and education when the number of inhabitants using those services dwindles. A larger population could sustain higher capacity ferry services to Aberdeen, Bergen or Faroe – and would help bring down the cost per passenger. A larger population also means more people spending money in the local economy, with multiplier effects that are nicely summarised in this local video: Buy Local – Mam’s £20 Journey – YouTube

There are also significant social benefits: for most of primary school, my friend Hannah and I were the only pupils in our year, but with 40-odd pupils split between two classrooms, there was enough of us that we got a good dose of social interaction throughout. With only a handful of kids in a school, youngsters do miss out. We have already seen too many local schools close, including the one I went to on Bressay.

We need to support those already living here to stay (particularly young families); we should encourage Shetlanders living away to return; and we should welcome new Shetlanders from all over. As well as growing our total population, it’s important we avoid further centralisation in and around Lerwick and ensure that our outlying communities can prosper.

I am pleased the SNP has put rural depopulation at the heart of its manifesto. The proposals include a Rural Entrepreneur Fund; £25m for new mobile masts improving rural internet; an Islands Bond to help young people and families stay on (or move to) islands most threatened by depopulation; and islands-focused aspects of the Young’s Person’s Guarantee, which will ensure every 16-24 year old has a job, placement or training opportunity.

The details of the Islands Bond are yet to be published but I hope its impact could be similar to the Scottish housing grants which helped folk stay in places like Fair Isle. In a community of 40 or 50 folk, a couple of young families being able to stay in or move to an isle can make all the difference. Over the decades, Shetland’s island communities have benefitted from all sorts of different grants and – particularly at a time when it is more difficult for European citizens to move here – any measures to tackle rural depopulation are welcome.

A period of economic stagnation in the 1960s and 70s saw Shetland’s population drop to around 17,000, with many leaving the islands to find work. The discovery of oil in the 1970s saw an economic boom which boosted the population to around 23,000. Recognising the relationship between population growth and economic prosperity, Shetland Islands Council has long pursued a policy of growing the population. Unfortunately, the statistics show this goal has been stubbornly hard to achieve, with the figures flatlining for the past 40 years.

Meanwhile, despite having a similarly sized population to Shetland in the early 20th century, our neighbours in Faroe have grown their population to over 50,000. The Faroe Islands have a slightly smaller land mass then Shetland and you could argue Shetland has more natural resources, so what can we learn from them?

The aspect quoted most often is infrastructure: tunnels connecting the islands which mean 90 percent of the population can get to work without being dependent on ferries. This undoubtedly helps. The best time to make those investments in Shetland was 40-odd years ago, but the next best time is as soon as we can – see Fixed Links – Tom Wills Shetland Campaign (tomwills4shetland.org).

Perhaps more importantly, Faroe has a parliament with more powers than Holyrood, despite having a population one hundredth of the size. They set out to grow their population and they had the powers to do it, including control of their resources. Clearly I support more powers for Scotland’s parliament and as I’ve set out in this blog, I think we should use the Islands Act to put more powers in Shetland communities and secure more control of local waters: More powers for our communities – Tom Wills Shetland Campaign (tomwills4shetland.org)

Investments in housing are also crucial and as we decarbonise our economy it is essential that we ensure adequate local benefit from energy projects and other industries of the future. At the level of national policymaking, this means adopting a more active political stance than the Lib Dem approach of going with the flow of whatever the prevailing economic orthodoxy happens to be: that gave us an entirely privatised North Sea (and no oil fund) as well as support for self-defeating austerity policies and bank bailouts, when we could have been investing in our communities.

The SNP are committed to sustaining populations in rural Scotland. Our manifesto includes a commitment to a Community Wealth Building Act that would redirect wealth, control and benefits to local economies. The Islands Act that the SNP delivered provides a mechanism for devolving more powers to Shetland, but we have yet to use it.

Contrary to what some folk might suggest, the Scottish Government is staffed entirely by humans: the interests of Shetland would be best served by us building relationships with them. Effective political representation is about more than just airing grievances. As a community, we need to get off the back foot, decide what we want – and go for it. A detailed plan for growing our population (and the powers to do so) would be a great start.

Graph data from: Shetland in Statistics; Faroe Islands – Visit the official site of the Faroe Islands and Faroe Islands – Wikipedia

See also: http://www.nordiclabourjournal.org/i-fokus/in-focus-2017/the-100-year-wave-hitting-nordic-labour-market/article.2017-01-30.7365890332/