Choosing your neighbours

Malachy feels the loss at the departure of a family from Fair Isle and looks ahead to the selection

This week our next-door neighbours left Fair Isle. After more than ten years on the island they have decided to make a new start elsewhere.

Departures like this affect everybody to some degree. People lose friends, colleagues and, in this case, the school has lost two of its pupils.

The past couple of years have seen some fairly major comings and going on the island, with several individuals and families choosing to leave, and others arriving to take their place. In total, 16 new people have moved to Fair Isle since the summer of 2005 – the most recent arrivals moved into a flat in the South Lighthouse only a few weeks ago – which, in a population of just over 70, is a pretty significant number.

Next-door has already been advertised to let in the Fair Isle Times (yes, we have our own weekly paper) and may be advertised more widely if necessary. The house, like the vast majority of properties on the island, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and potential residents will go through a fairly unusual application process to decide on the successful candidate.

Although the decision rests ultimately with the National Trust, a group of five elected islanders, known as the Housing Forum, meet to discuss all applications, and to assess the suitability of each applicant. The forum then makes their recommendation to the trust.

The process for selecting new residents has attracted considerable attention in the past; even leading Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, to suggest basing a “reality TV” series on it. Needless to say, the suggestion was rejected.

Those with a connection to the island, particularly a family connection, are generally given high priority. People with skills that are needed on the isle, or those can carry out available jobs, are preferred, and families are usually favoured over individuals. If a croft is connected to the property, as it is in this case, then agricultural experience would be a definite advantage. Applicants are sometimes also asked to provide a business plan, to show how they intend to make a living and to demonstrate that they have a realistic understanding of what life on a remote island involves.

This selection process, which is invariably described by the press as a “competition”, has been criticised in the past as being a form of “social engineering”, and, in a sense, that is exactly what it is. But the necessity of such a system is obvious.

In other places, where houses are sold to the highest bidder, young people from the area often cannot afford to stay. Because of this, essential skills are lost and families are separated. At that stage, a community is well on the way to being destroyed.

One of the reasons, perhaps the most significant reason, Fair Isle has managed to sustain its community so successfully, is this issue of housing. Were houses to become available for sale, the island would quickly fill up with holiday homes and rich retirees. And that would be the end of everything that makes this place special.

So, for the moment, until new tenants can be found, my girlfriend and I will be croft-sitting. That means taking care of a muddy field full of miserable-looking sheep, only a month away from lambing, plus one grumpy ram, a handful of year-old lambs, and a dozen hens. I suspect we’ll soon be begging the Housing Forum to hurry up and make a decision. Or, you never know, perhaps we’ll want a croft of our own.

Which reminds me: I must go and feed the chickens.

Photograph: David Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Young voters lost the referendum but they still deserve a future

It's time to stop sneering at "crap towns" and turn them into places young people want to stay. 

What a horror show. A land-slide 75 per cent of young people voted in favour of Europe. The greater numbers of the over 65s met that force with 61 per cent against. Possibly the greatest divide in our country turned out to be not gender, not race, not even party politics, but age. The old and the young faced off about how to run our country, and the young lost. 
 
What have we done to our future? Well, whatever happens now, leadership is required. We can’t afford to have the terms of the debate dictated by Brexiters who looked as shocked at the mess they have made as Stronger-Inners are distraught. We can’t afford to wallow either. Young people across this country today are feeling worried and let down – failed by all of us - because when their future was on the line, we were unable to secure it. We – those who believe we achieve more by our common endeavour - all feel that deep worry, and all share in that shame.

How we should all rue the choice not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. And quickly re-ignite the campaign for votes at 16.

But young people don’t need our worry or our pity or our shame. They need a better chance and we need to give them one. I believe passionately that the future for this country was as a leader in Europe, but that does not mean we give up on our future now. For Labour, the challenge now is to work out how we can build a better future for all our people and communities. The sky has not fallen. The UK is still a rich country.

Beat recession with better housing

Let’s start with housing and development. It is no longer good enough to simply set targets with no possibility of meeting them. The housing crunch has killed off the chance of owning a home for many young people, and left thousands at the mercy of cripplingly expensive rent.  The housing market is broken and we need to build much faster in high growth areas like London and Manchester at the same time investing in restoring low quality housing in our northern towns, in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland. 

In policy terms, we should be asking the Local Government Association, the Infrastructure Commission, and the construction industry itself, to collaborate on a counter-Brexit house building plan with a focus on areas where there is a clear market failure. We could get a champion of industry and construction such as my old Network Rail boss, Sir John Armitt, to be in charge, and lead a national mission to build and rebuild homes.

In the last parliament, Osborne first tried the "tighten our belts" approach to speeding up growth. He failed, and then tried plan B: investment for growth. Now we have the possibility of another recession on the cards and may well need to use investment to stop our economy grinding to a halt. Now - or possibly sooner - would be an excellent time for a national building project like this housing plan.

Stop sneering at "crap towns"

On economic development, it is clear that Labour needs a strategy for giving our northern towns an economic future and linking them up with the modern economy. When cities grow, and towns fall behind, those towns are a breeding ground for frustration. This is not just about cuts, it is about the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation. The Brexit vote was centred around areas that justifiably feel they have lost from the last decades. We need to make sure they win from the years ahead.

For far too long, there has been a sneering "crap towns" attitude. These places can offer good housing, community, and a decent life. But the problem there is work. In many of our towns, there is too little to do that can offer a young person a career tomorrow as well as a shift today.

Because, as it happens, the biggest driver of low pay tends to be skill level, not immigration. 

Teach the skills we need

Of course we should stop exploitation of migrant workers who undercut others. Let's tell firms that use exploitative agencies they can't work for the Government. But you can’t raise wages without changing the structure of the labour market. It’s not just about replacing one set of workers with another - you have to raise the level of wages that those workers can command. Because the truth about work in too many places is that most of the jobs available are either those with the low status of care work (though it may be highly-skilled work), or industries with a high volume of low-skilled work such as retail and hospitality. But from there, there’s nothing to move on to. The brain drain to cities has consequences.

Leaving Europe will shut off economic opportunity across the country to many young people.  Frankly, we owe it to them to work like demons to offer them something better closer to home.

We need a social partnership for skills and work. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress working together to deliver an urgent plan for training and career progression in the towns with stagnant labour markets and low skills. We need to find a way to stop the brain drain that sucks the talent out of the places that need it the most, using the experience of programmes like Teach First. When the best people feel they have no reason to return to where they grow up, it is both a sign of a deep problem and also demoralising evidence of decline for those left behind.

And our new metro-mayors must pay as much attention to the towns in their region as well as the city centre. No one left out, no one’s local shops lying empty whilst a city down the road flourishes. And no schools failing, either.

It is undeniable that people voted for change in the referendum. The problem is that the change they voted for will do little to solve the problems they face. Labour’s role is not just to point this out, but to offer a vision of real meaningful change. 

Not easy, perhaps. But one thing is for certain, mouthing platitudes about "hearing concerns"and offering only symbolic gestures has been tested to destruction. People deserve better and we need to offer it to them.

Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.