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.

PRESS RELEASE: LOCAL MSP SAYS OFT REPORT SHOWS NEED FOR FUEL DUTY REGULATOR FOR HIGHLANDS AND ISLANDS

Independent Highlands and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has today highlighted an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) Report into Road Fuels, saying that it has proven the need for a Fuel Duty Regulator in the Highlands and Islands.

The OFT Report found that, in August 2012, rural areas paid on average 1.9pence per litre (ppl) more for petrol and 1.7ppl more for diesel than urban areas due to the presence of fewer retailers and transport costs for getting fuel to rural forecourts. The OFT Report also found that fuel price rises over the last 10 years have been primarily caused by higher crude oil prices and increases in taxes and duties.

Discussing the OFT’s findings, Jean said:

“The UK has some of the cheapest road fuel prices in Europe before taxes are applied, but these prices are drastically increased at the pump.

“24ppl of the 60ppl rise in the last 10 years is directly due to taxes and duties rather than market forces.

“Consumers and businesses across the Highlands and Islands are being relentlessly punished by a tax regime that does not recognise the necessity of affordable fuel for the economic sustainability of the region.

“I urge the Liberal Democrat MPs in the Highlands and Islands to use what influence they have within the Coalition to deliver a better deal for their constituents by introducing the Fuel Duty Regulator the Highlands and Islands so desperately needs.”