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From the Channel Islands to the Shetland Islands – views from the edges of the British Isles

Ok.  For the pedants, I know that the Channel Islands are not in the UK, nor even in the EU, and as such, are outwith the remit of the Commission.  But they are a Crown dependency, part of the British Isles, with a special relationship with the EU, in the EU Customs area and with access to the single market.  And I was in Guernsey for a holiday, not for work, so I get a bye.

Visiting both within a fortnight, I was struck by how permeable and fluid the boundaries of the British Isles really are.  For both, their historic and current cultural relationships with their nearest neighbours are palpable - in Guernsey, the proximity to France and in Shetland, to the Nordic countries, colour every aspect of life – from language and dialect, to the street names, to trading relationships.   And when you’re there, visibly surrounded by the sea, you can’t help but remember what living on an island really means.  As Mat Roberts, CEO of the Shetland Amenity Trust, told me “We know we live on a small island.  Here, you get three days of bad weather, when the ships can’t come in, and the supermarket shelves empty.  Everyone has a big freezer.” 

Guernsey (pop 63,000) and Shetland (pop. 23,000) had a couple of other things in common too.  The enormous cruise-liners dwarf the modest harbours of St Peter Port and Lerwick, disgorging thousands of American tourists, filling the streets, but spending little: they are a very mixed blessing.  For the tour buses and taxis, they bring in a good income.  Drew Ratter, a Shetlander and crofter, described ‘tour guide’ as his retirement job.  But for others they brought the worst of globalised tourism – large numbers passing through small communities without much benefit to many local people.

Guernsey and Shetland share another set of characteristics, at odds with a common assumption about small communities: they are historically cosmopolitan, outward-looking, well-travelled, and - in more recent years - affluent.  In Guernsey, the financial services sector shapes the island’s economy.  Shetland’s economy is worth around £1bn, 40% of that deriving from oil and gas, another 40% from fishing and aquaculture, with the remaining 20% coming from agriculture, tourism and the creative industries.   Aquaculture – growing, catching and processing fish and shellfish – is the most significant business on the islands.  More white fish is landed in Shetland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together.  80% of the UK mussel production is on Shetland, along with 30% of the farmed salmon. And in the quaint harbourside hotel I stayed in (for one night, before decamping to a more welcoming guesthouse) the languages spoken in the dining room came from men on a break from the oil rigs and the boats, not tourists.

Although smaller in economic contribution, farming and crofting is a deeply integral part of Shetland culture, mainly focussed on sheep production, with some beef and cereal alongside.  Nearly 3000 people work full or part time in agriculture. But farm payments make up a significant proportion of farm income and very few farmers rely wholly on a single source of farm income. The ‘gig economy’ – or as HIE calls it – the ‘portfolio package’ – is the normal way of life in Shetland.  People are more likely to work formally and informally in several sectors. 

But like rural communities throughout the UK, Shetland faces its own structural challenges.  Depopulation – with young people leaving for work or education and not coming back – creates a variety of issues, and the ageing, remaining population places increased demands on public services and social resources.   Shetland has full employment; it’s hard to find staff for the conventionally ‘low value, low pay’ work that props up the service, retail and care sectors in the UK.  The Highlands and Islands Enterprise team explained they have one main strategy – talent attraction – encouraging people to consider Shetland as a great place to come to live, work and play, with high quality technical jobs available in the main industries.   Like other rural communities – housing for people on lower incomes is hard to find.  And in spite of higher average earnings and full employment, such statistics mask the now familiar story; the presenting picture hides serious rural poverty and disadvantage.   

Like everywhere else in the country, Shetland has a food bank: The Salvation Army runs a weekly lunch club.  Both are well used and take up is increasing.  David Grieve, who runs the foodbank, was anticipating the arrival of Universal Credit with dread.  The Foodbank mainly accepts referrals, as is usual, but will also accept self-referrals, from the working poor or people who are facing crisis, who don’t have a family or professionals involved in their lives and who would otherwise fall through the net. 

Rachel and Richard, community workers, both emphasised that whilst Shetland has a higher average income, the cost of living is considerably higher too – 60% higher according to Joseph Rowntree calculations.  There’s not enough social housing to meet need, and private rental accommodation is expensive.  Fuel poverty (where people have to spend more than 10% of their income on heating) is high. The cost of transport is both high and can be limited, depending where you live on the 14 inhabited islands, bringing additional hardship for people managing an acute crisis or chronic conditions.    Rachel emphasised the paradox of living in small, close knit communities.  On the one hand people are generous – putting a call out on the well-used Shetland Facebook pages for help will, without fail, get a rapid response.  But it can be hard to ask for help, when everyone knows everyone else: privacy and dignity are sacrificed.   

In Guernsey, where housing is on a par with London prices, there is a managed two-tier housing market, to protect the number of houses available for local people.  Open Market housing is available to anyone with a right to live and work in the UK and comprises around 1600 properties; local market housing is for people with historic rights to live and work in Guernsey, often through birth (although it’s possible to get a housing license for key workers to immigrate and live in local market housing).  Whilst housing is still expensive, this locally responsive solution works for Guernsey. 

On balance, people told me that living on a small island fosters resilient, responsive, connected communities.  People help each other out, come up with creative and practical solutions to the particular challenges they face.  They make things work.  I was also struck by the size of these communities – similar in size to rural or market towns on the mainland – and what they are able to accomplish at that scale.  Much UK policy (and I include the devolved governments in this) focusses on regional or city deals, on the basis that this is the most efficient scale for economic development and public policy delivery.  But this can create a very cloudy lens through which to understand how communities really work and what conditions they need to flourish.   

The Shetland Islands and a Channel Island, on the face of it very different, but also with so much in common, reminded me what living in thriving small communities - on a small island – can mean.

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