Britain's most northerly man and otter stories

Malachy reflects on the vulnerability of rural communities during a visit to Unst and meets some of

I am currently in Unst, Britain’s most northerly island, proud home to Britain’s most northerly shop, house, church, chocolate factory, brewery and person (which, at some point this weekend, was quite possibly me). The island has also been home, since January, to my brother, Rory.

Reaching Unst is something of a trek. From Lerwick it is nearly an hour’s drive, then a 15-minute ferry journey to the island of Yell, a further 20-minute drive across Yell, and a final, 10-minute ferry ride to Unst. Beyond this island there is nothing except water – a lot of water – and then ice. The Arctic Circle is only about 400 miles north of here, not much more than the distance from London to Glasgow.

Unst, like most of Shetland’s outer islands, and indeed like rural areas all over Britain, has suffered from depopulation and a lack of employment opportunities over recent decades. In Shetland, as elsewhere, people tend to gravitate towards the largest centres of population – in our case, Lerwick – and this inevitably makes it difficult to retain employment, and to attract new people to live and work in more remote areas.

Here though the problem has been made even more severe by the recent closure of the RAF base, Saxaford, and the subsequent loss of jobs and families from the island. Although the closure was carried out in a gradual process over a number of years, the change has been dramatic all the same. In the last decade the population has decreased from around 700 to 500 people – a serious dent by any standard.

Rural communities are vulnerable to any changes in population and employment, and they can feel seriously threatened when problems occur. Much thought has gone in to finding a sustainable way forward for Unst, and the desire to create opportunities for young people and newcomers is paramount. Here, as in other remote parts of Shetland, many people are looking to tourism to provide the answers, and certainly a healthy supply of visitors is important for any area. But I am not convinced that the tourist industry, fickle as it can be, is where the solution should be sought. A community must first serve itself before it should begin to serve others.

* * *

Rory and I spent most of Saturday driving through Unst and Yell in the rain with no particular place to go. We had rather optimistically taken fishing rods with us, though the weather didn’t look too promising. I had also been hoping to see an otter or two while I was here. They are relatively common in the North Isles, although, as we stopped to look out at one empty shoreline after another, Rory was quick to explain that “You never see them when you’re looking for them”.

As evening approached we headed back towards his house in the north of the island. The rain had eased considerably by then and we decided to take the rods and try a few casts from the beach beside the house. Rory had caught a good sea trout here the day before I arrived, so we were fairly hopeful of our chances.

Down at the beach, we had hardly begun to fish when out of the water appeared a pair of otters, just 100 yards to our right. Entirely unbothered by our presence the pair lollopped slowly up the sand, pausing here and there to examine items of interest along the way. We watched until they disappeared into the grass above the beach, and then returned to our fishing, as the light rain became a steady downpour.

Postscript: Sunday 4th March
Driving back to the ferry this morning in wonderful sunshine, we passed a family of otters swimming in the sea beside the road. As we watched, the mother came out of the water and up onto the road in front of us. She looked over at us for a moment and then, perhaps hearing the cries of her cubs, retreated to the sea again.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496