Shetland Times Article: Supporting the “Drop the Debt” Campaign

The Shetland Times’ “Drop the Debt” campaign is a worthy and welcome reminder of the need for governments to be held accountable for their promises and their actions. The historic housing debt that burdens not only Shetland Islands Council but other councils across Scotland is a drain on local government resources at a time when every penny by necessity must be a prisoner.

Much of the historic background of the housing debt has been covered in great detail by other contributors, but the political context of the debt must also be analysed if the campaign is to be met with success. This is the Liberal Democrats’ first taste of power at Westminster for a century, and 3 years into a Coalition Government no action has been taken on housing debt. Despite holding the balance of power after the 2010 election, no promises were extracted on housing debt; instead, a referendum on the voting system was agreed at a cost of £75 million. Although I support a fairer, more proportional electoral system, I find it extraordinary that the political capital held by the Liberal Democrats was squandered so fruitlessly.

The Shetland Islands’ own MP, Alistair Carmichael, is Lib Dem Chief Whip and a major player in the Coalition Government in Westminster. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury and member of the infamous “Coalition Quad”, Danny Alexander MP, is a Highlands MP who promised at the last election to wipe out Highland Council’s historic housing debt. Both are decent, honourable men who strive to do the best for their constituents, but neither has yet taken visible action to make the case within the halls of Westminster for dropping the debt.

The consequences of such a staggering debt hang around Shetland’s neck like an albatross. We are all aware of the continual cloth-cutting Shetland Islands Council are forced to make to education, transport and other services, just as we are aware of the extra costs being shouldered by council house tenants.

As Councillor Alastair Cooper has previously argued, had Shetland Islands Council not built the houses it had in the 1970s, oil and gas revenues that have sustained successive UK Governments would never have flowed into the Treasury. Given that Shetland contributed £82 million more to the UK state than it received back in 2011, the situation becomes even more farcical. It is nothing short of a scandal that the billions of pounds of taxes that flow from the North Sea have never found their way to cancelling the debt incurred by Shetland to facilitate the industry in the first place.

Westminster’s cuts to Scotland’s budget (8% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15) make it very difficult for the Scottish Government to mitigate the tremendously difficult situation Shetland and other local authorities find themselves in. However, the £40 million that would be required to wipe out the debt is a drop in the Westminster ocean. For example, the sum of money lost annually through tax avoidance is estimated at £25 billion, roughly the same as the entire Scottish Government’s budget, demonstrating that good governance could deliver more revenue to support stretched local authorities.

While I believe that Westminster must take action on this, I am cognisant of Malcolm Bell’s call for Shetland Islands Council, the Scottish Government and Westminster to all play their part in righting this historic wrong. Let’s recognise Shetland’s financial contribution and Drop the Debt.

Jean signing the "Drop the Debt" petition in Parliament.
Jean signing the “Drop the Debt” petition in Parliament.
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Photos: Signing Kevin Stewart MSP’s Anti-Bedroom Tax Letter

Along with other SNP, Green and Independent MSPs, as well as a number of voluntary organisations, trade unions and disability groups, I signed an open letter to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne MP calling on the Bedroom Tax to be scrapped in this year’s Budget Statement on March 20th. City of Edinburgh-20130313-00046 City of Edinburgh-20130313-00047 City of Edinburgh-20130313-00050 IMG-20130313-00028 IMG-20130313-00029

Shelter Scotland’s Christmas Emergency Pledge

Before Christmas, I signed Shelter Scotland’s Christmas Emergency 2012 “letter to Santa” calling on the Scottish Government to introduce better standards for temporary accommodation. It’s a pledge that I was pleased to sign and will continue to keep a keen interest throughout the year.

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PRESS RELEASE: JEAN URQUHART DISTRIBUTES AGE SCOTLAND CALENDARS

Jean Urquhart MSP has distributed free copies of Age Scotland’s ‘Hot Tips’ calendar that contains useful advice for older people preparing for winter to groups across the Highlands and Islands.

More than 50,000 copies of the calendar, funded by the Scottish Government, have been produced this year by Age Scotland as part of their “Spread the Warmth” campaign, with tips on health care, household repairs and welfare benefits all contained within its pages.

Jean, an independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said:

“I am more than happy to play my part in distributing Age Scotland’s calendars, and have already passed some to groups and constituents across the Highlands and Islands.

“With Scotland’s ageing population, it is increasingly important that we are all aware of ways to make life easier for older people, and for making that information as easy to access as possible.

“These calendars are an innovative tool that keeps handy hints on how to keep safe, warm and healthy on our wall all year round.

“Although it’s bad luck to open a calendar before January 1st, I hope these calendars will bring good fortune to those who obtain one.”

PRESS RELEASE: JEAN URQUHART WELCOMES HOUSING SUPPORT FOR SHETLAND

Highland and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has welcomed the announcement of extra funding for Shetland Islands Council to help the transition from its traditional model of council housing funding.

Following the abolition of the Housing Support Grant from April 2013 for Shetland Islands Council, the last local authority area to receive it, the Scottish Government has reached a deal with Shetland Islands Council to provide £840,000 of funding until the end of the Parliamentary term.

Jean, an Independent Highlands and Islands MSP, said:

“I was delighted to hear that the Scottish Government and Shetland Islands Council have reached an agreement on an issue that was causing concern in the Islands.

“I was equally pleased that the Scottish Government listened to the concerns of local tenants and put in place a package that will help the Council in tough economic times.

“We must now focus our attentions on holding Westminster to their promise of writing off Shetland’s historic housing debt, whose repayments continues to cripple both the housing situation and Shetland’s finances as a whole.”

PRESS RELEASE: JEAN URQUHART HIGHLIGHTS CONTINUED “FAILURE TO REPRESENT” SHETLAND

Jean Urquhart MSP has described the Westminster government’s latest act of ignorance towards the needs of the people of the Shetland Islands as “another failure of representation at the highest level”.

It was reported today in the Shetland Times that Shetland Islands Councillor Allison Duncan buttonholed  Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury,  for the coalition’s failure to deliver on a previous promise made regarding housing debt.

The Council, at the behest of the previous Tory government, had built dozens of new houses to host incoming oil workers, with then-Chancellor Ken Clarke promising to write off a £40m housing debt incurred by the Islands- a promise that was never fulfilled.  

Councillor Duncan noted that Mr Alexander seemed particularly “uncomfortable” and unfamiliar with the issue when, during the conversation, a “very discouraging” letter sent by Mr Alexander to the Council regarding the debt was raised.

Mr Alexander’s reticence is all the more striking given his previous calls for Highland Council housing debt to be wiped out by Westminster in 2010.

Ms Urquhart, SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said:

“This latest chapter in the LibDems’ involvement in the Coalition saga only deepens the impression of a party out of touch with its principles and its constituents.

“LibDems, who waited a century to regain power at Westminster, have proven to be toothless in representing rural Scotland, including Shetland, which have gone for so long without a strong, local representative on the Westminster government benches.

“Although they were not part of the Westminster government that initially pressed for the building of houses, they are part of the Westminster government that can help deliver on an old promise.

“The most basic element of an MP’s job is representing the interests of their constituency and constituents. In these tough economic times for the Council, how long will it take for the Coalition’s Chief Whip to fulfil this duty for his constituency?

“Or, as with fuel duty, are the LibDems simply providing cover for Tory ineptitude while delivering little for those who trusted them with power?”