Transition Shetland

Response to “Imagining Shetland’s Future” scenarios

Transition Shetland is a community group concerned with imagining and planning for these islands’ future, particularly in the light of Peak Oil, climate change and other environmental concerns. As such, the ‘scenario planning’ process is of considerable interest to us, and we are grateful for the opportunity to respond.

It is right, of course, for Shetland Islands Council to engage in such a project, and this seems a particularly pertinent time for it to take place. It is to be hoped that this kind of planning and forward thinking will mark an end to the seemingly directionless policy-making that has characterised the council’s activities over recent years.

However, while we as a group welcome the publication of these four scenarios, as well as the attempt to involve and engage the public in their content, we also consider them to be flawed in a number of important ways. These are outlined below.

We believe the scenarios have been shaped by certain assumptions that ought not to be taken for granted. We have tried to highlight some of these assumptions here. In addition, we have picked out a number of specific points for praise and other points for criticism.

Our more specific comments are largely restricted to the scenario Got’n a Grip. This is in part to keep our response reasonably concise, but it is also because this scenario is presented as the most positive of the four. As such we assume that it will be the most significant in the development of any planning aspirations that may result from this project.

Assumptions

All four scenarios rest upon a number of broad assumptions that are worth highlighting and examination.

  1. The scenarios assume that the global economy will remain essentially unchanged in form over the next two decades. While there is acknowledgement in at least one scenario that a return to economic growth is not inevitable, the overall shape of the world economy is portrayed as being, in essence, the same as today. Given the enormous uncertainties and upheavals currently affecting countries across the globe, as well as the social and environmental crises that have their roots in the current model of capitalism, it does not seem outlandish to suggest that more fundamental changes are possible, and desirable, over the next two decades.
  2. Related to this is the assumption that ‘economic growth’ is the best route to achieving social goals. We would point to work by Professor Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth) and to research from the New Economics Foundation which challenge this view and which identify ‘infinite growth’ as being not only unsustainable but impossible on a finite planet.
  3. The scenarios assume that our society and communities must inevitably be moulded by given ‘economic realities’. In each of them, the health of the community is portrayed as essentially a by-product or side-effect of the economic situation. Such an approach ignores the possibility that the economy can and should be shaped by community goals. Progress is being made in this direction with the UK government’s acknowledgment that GDP is an inadequate measure of a country’s success; but the move towards measuring “Gross National Happiness” should only be the start. Community well-being ought to be a planning priority. Economy and infrastructure should be the supporting pillars of this goal, but they should not become the goal itself.
  4. There is a general assumption that technological developments are always, necessarily positive. It is worth acknowledging that rapid technological change can, conversely, trap communities, as well as people, into a cycle of chasing new developments, in constant fear of being ‘left behind’. This is particularly true with major projects such as the provision of ‘super-fast’ broadband, which require continual upheaval and massive inputs of finance when one technology is (inevitably) superseded by another. Such a project would also be potentially damaging overall were it not to be universally accessible (at the very least through rural ‘hubs’); it would create or emphasise inequalities within the community that would negate any positive impacts that might otherwise be felt. Technology is a tool, and its impacts – positive or negative – should be weighed carefully, like any other development. ‘New technology’ should not become a target merely for its own sake.
  5. Critically, the scenarios assume a certain powerlessness in Shetland, and understandably so. In one scenario, centralisation of power leads to the demise of SIC. Given the current state of local government, this is certainly not an impossible outcome. However, there is a failure in

Praise

  • There is a reasonable breadth of possibilities over the four scenarios, though this breadth is tempered by a generally conservative outlook and a lack of radical ideas.
  • The importance of local food recurs in the scenarios several times. This is good. Shetland’s current reliance on imported food is both economically and environmentally unsound. It also leaves the islands considerably more vulnerable to changes in oil price than we need be. The encouragement of local food production – from home vegetable growing and allotments to larger scale commercial operations – is essential as we move forward. Such encouragement however must also be accompanied by a significant increase in local procurement within the public and private sectors. This is something on which both the SIC and NHS (as well as local hotels and restaurants) are currently failing.
  • There is a general acknowledgement of the importance of communities, not just of the economy, and a good deal of space is given over to this. However, as outlined above, we feel the balance is still not right, and particularly not enough thought is given to how remote and rural communities will be affected by each scenario. The current attitude that “What’s good for Lerwick is good for Shetland” is reflected in the scenarios. This must change. We would like to see a significant decentralisation of power within Shetland and within the SIC in this time frame.
  • The idea that community profits gained from renewable energy developments should be invested in further energy reduction measures such as insulating homes (Got’n a Grip) is a good one. As is the suggestion that higher eco building standards should be implemented (see Assumption 5, however).
  • The emphasis on the “community economy” (Got’n a Grip) is good. This is something that ought to be strongly encouraged and fostered.
  • The development of Shetland College as an education centre, perhaps focusing on renewable technologies, is potentially positive.
  • The acknowledgement of the potentially corrosive nature of today’s community divisions is important. The final paragraph of Got’n a Grip highlights the enormous but vital task in tackling this. There is, too, an acceptance that such divisions cannot be solved by economics and “good decision making” alone. (The rift caused by the Viking Energy project will not disappear, for instance, if the windfarm generates a lot of money). Tackling divisions, cynicism and disengagement ought to be a real priority for the SIC, though there are no signs yet that this is the case.
  • There is mention, more than once, of the positive impacts of young people returning to Shetland. We would agree with this. Shetland ought to be seen by graduates and other young people as a positive place to come back to, and the community benefits greatly from the presence of these ‘returners’.

Criticisms

  • The scale of “economic balance” on which the four scenarios are categorised as either “good” or “poor” is patently subjective, yet it is not presented as such. No definitions of “good” or “poor” are offered – the scenarios rest purely on the assumptions of those involved in their creation. Further, in one scenario (Keep on Knappin), a local economy “entirely dominated by businesses based elsewhere”, which has created “profound inequalities within the islands”, and an underclass that “is largely economically inactive”, is classified as “Good”. Surely not? This example suggests either a failure of classification or a failure of methodology.
  • There are numerous other subjective and effectively meaningless phrases lurking in the scenarios. For instance, in Got’n a Grip we learn that the Charitable Trust “pursues a strategy of intelligent investment, both locally and internationally” (our emphasis). What exactly is “intelligent investment”? How does it compare with “ethical investment”? For another example, also in Got’n a Grip, we are told that “Shetland has achieved management control of all species within its fishing grounds”. How is it possible to manage or to control a species of fish? Or is “management control” intended to mean “sustainability”? And how can this be achieved within the Common Fisheries Policy? (See again Assumption 5)
  • There is a general underestimation of the impact that rising oil and commodity prices will have on the community and the economy. This is a crucial mistake. The price of a barrel of oil in twenty years time is of course impossible to predict, but without enormous changes in the way we live our lives, our future is going to be shaped by that price. Everything we import, everything we consume, everything on which we rely for society to function is currently dependent (at every level of the supply chain) on oil. There are disagreements between analysts about how quickly and how dramatically Peak Oil will impact on prices, there is no doubt that it will have an impact. These scenarios make only a half-hearted stab at imagining the possible effect of this on our lives. Unless Shetland can focus much harder on increasing community resilience to such changes, we are, as it were, asking for trouble.
  • Transition Shetland has chosen not to take a side on the issue of Viking Energy as there are important differences of opinion within our group. However, we do note that these scenarios are framed from a position strongly in favour of such a project – a position that is perhaps inevitable (and perhaps deliberate) given the makeup of the working group. We also note that developments (in housing and in industry) are on the whole viewed only in terms of their economic impact. Our view is that land in Shetland – whether agricultural, 'hill' land or otherwise undeveloped areas – has a value that extends beyond its immediate monetary worth. The development (and therefore loss) of such land comes at a cost which, though it may be difficult to quantify, is nonetheless significant. This includes development for “environmental” projects. We believe that the impetus should always be on developers to prove that the loss of such land is necessary or essential; it should not be on the community to try to prove otherwise.
  • It is notable that the most positive of the four scenarios also reads as the least likely. There is an element of the ‘techno fantasy’ about it, and in places it reads suspiciously like a list of pre-existing council ambitions. This leads to obvious contradictions. For instance, on the one hand, “the cost of leaving or getting to Shetland is much more expensive”; yet on the other, we have an “increased capacity ferry service from Aberdeen” , as well as ferries to Norway, Iceland and Faroe, and flights from London and Oslo. Surely if we want to imagine a positive scenario for the future, it ought at least to be consistent and believable.
  • Similarly, the council’s current ambition to raise the population dramatically is miraculously achieved in Got’n a Grip. A population of 29,000 is described as “a sustainable level”. There are many reasons why such a rise would not be at all sustainable, principally in terms of housing, pressure on infrastructure and the potential impact on community relations. An increase in inward migration of working people would inevitable be accompanied by a similar rise in non-working people, and the imagined benefits of such a rise would be very unlikely in reality This ambition has always sounded flawed and ill-considered; here it is no less so.
  • Again, there is a fantastical element to the section on housing in Got’n a Grip: “we have chic new homes that are affordable both to rent and to buy for those starting out”. How has this been achieved without a (frankly impossible) manipulation of the local market or a (similarly impossible) mass building of new houses in anticipation of future immigration? Surely it is inevitable that a rising population will create enormous pressures on housing. To simply claim “this problem has been solved” is to insult the intelligence of readers. To fail to acknowledge potential problems, particularly in this scenario, is dishonest. While it may not suit current SIC goals, the only guaranteed way to ease pressure on housing in Shetland is with a reduced population.
  • Another of the council’s aspirations – fixed links – features prominently. Tunnels to Whalsay and Yell, we’re told, “will ensure . . . the continuing success of these islands”. Please see Assumption 6 for an outline of why we feel this view is mistaken. Islands should not be seen as potential commuter towns. Building fixed links might ultimately reduce costs for the SIC in running ferry services, but so too would reducing the need to travel as regularly by enabling communities to become more self-reliant.
  • Ultimately, the message of Got’n a Grip seems to be that decision makers are already on the right track. The scenario implies that so long as we build a windfarm and reap the profits (and so long as we are very, very lucky) everything will be alright. This is a disappointing and hugely unrealistic result, and represents a profound failure of imagination. The consequences of such a failure are potentially very serious indeed.

Conclusion

The scenarios seem to us something of a wasted opportunity. The original consultation process appears suspiciously like an exercise in “hearing what you want to hear”, with considerably more weight given to responses from hand-picked interviewees than to those from individuals within the community. Ultimately, the scenarios are shaped by the assumptions, beliefs and prejudices of the working group, and are significantly weakened by this. A genuine consultative process (with a more diverse working group) would of course have been infinitely preferable.

The comments here should be considered more representative than comprehensive; we have merely tried to outline the kind of flaws that characterise all four scenarios. Yet it must be said that the three more “negative” futures presented in these scenarios are each driven by a more believable and logical narrative than is the sole “positive” one. This in itself is a serious problem. We would like to think that it was possible to imagine a positive future for Shetland that is realistic, that is consistent,that is achievable. The “Scenario Planning” process has not achieved this, however.

We hope that this response can prove helpful in your analysis of the project, and we would welcome any communication on further developments.