Sunday, December 02, 2012

'This house believes Mareel is a sound investment': speech from Althing Debate, Tingwall, 1st December 2012

THE readers start here!

Mareel is Shetland's new, and very impressive, music venue and cinema complex, arts and multimedia centre, dancehall, cafe, recording and video hub. Owned and operated by Shetland Arts, a local trust formed originally by  Shetland Islands Council to enact arts policy, it has always been controversial, opened a year late and cost £12.2 million, around 10 per cent over budget. Legal wrangling with the main contractor, local firm DITT, continues.

Shetland Arts has asked the council for around £600,000 to match emergency funding from other bodies so that the (so-far) agreed capital overspend can be met. The council will meet in private in the coming week to make that decision.

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Kevin Learmonth and I spoke in support of the motion, that 'Mareel is a sound investment'. We were opposed by Martin and Margaret Tregonning. Chair was Chris Bunyan, and there were around 30 people in attendance. There was a spirited and good-natured discussion after the excellent 8 o'clocks (great bannocks). As is traditional at the Althing, which has been going since 1947, a vote was taken on the motion before and after the speeches, discussion and summings-up. My memory tells me that the first vote was 15 in favour of the motion, four against and seven abstaining. And the second was 21 in favour, four against and 1 abstaining. But I could be wrong!

By way of introduction, I'd remind us all that tonight's Althing Debate here at Tingwall, site of the ancient Shetland parliament, is to be, apparently, the only forum for open public discussion on the funding of Mareel. We are told that the coming week's SIC meeting on the subject will be held in private. This is disgraceful.

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I’ve been asking myself lately:

What are the things about Shetland, about being in Shetland, that I love?

That in particular, you can’t get anywhere else

Why did I come here in first place? Apart from the fact that there was this girl who was renting a house from the Health Board for £12 a week and who seemed quite interesting. And interested in me. And that I was being pursued by three angry Glaswegians who had taken offence at something I’d written.

There's a surprise.

Well, the things I loved, and learned to love about Shetland were first, the mutton. Roast mutton. Boiled, I'm still not so sure. Reestit? Well, it's fine as long as it hasn't been 'reestit' above a Rayburn along with a year's worth of drying clothes, mainly underwear. That is an acquired taste. But I still remember the first Foula mutton I ever ate. someone told me it tasted that way because the sheep had to swim to the mainland. Which seemed just as  unlikely to a city boy as them eating seaweed.

I loved the visiting, the socialising, the music. I loved the darkness, cosiness, what the Duthc call the gezillich of the winters, and then there was the extraordinary winter light…and of course the spring and the summer and the simmer dim to follow. 

The sea. Boats. The sense that money, how much you had or how little, was not as important as who you were, and how you conducted yourself. The sense of a community.


I  don’t love Mareel. How could you love a building that looks like a corrugated iron shoebox God has inadvertently stepped on? Built to block the view from every house in Brown’s Road, and already weathering badly on the its corrugated iron side?

I don’t love it  and I opposed it being built. I resented and still resent the way that Shetland Arts seemed unwilling to be accountable to the public for the way the project was being run. In many ways, it’s the last tangible outcome of a redundant policy, that of the arms lengths trusts. Proper, strategic thinking would have seen recreation, education, musuem and arts facilities economically integrated by now. Instead we have a haphazard collection of little/large fiefdoms in the form  of council departments and trusts, over-managed and eating into each other’s resources.

So Mareel sits there, the Squinty Box, 10 per cent over budget and demanding a further investment of just over a million pounds to clear its decks and pay off  what it is agreed DITT are owed. At least we think that's the situation. It's all apparently a commercial secret. Of that million or so pounds, there’s a promise of 600k from HIE and Creative Scotland, if, Shetland Islands council, already into this for 6m, provide half a million.

Is it a sound investment? I believe it is. It has to be made.

Unpopular in some circles? Yes. Embarrassing? Yes. For some councillors, probably unacceptable But, if  we’re talking about a loan here - perhaps a  loan at commercial rates, and I understand that this would be acceptable as 'matched funding' - It is a sound investment. It is the right investment. It is a good thing to do. 

Now, you may ask yourself, isn't this the Tom Morton who has questioned in print how Mareel could ever make money? It is the very same. and I still don’t believe Mareel will make money. I think Shetland Arts are  understandably, and desperately spinning their - on the face of it  impressive cinema ticket sales, trying to gain traction in the fight for more funding. Sales are one thing, profits quite another. And my own experience of  live music in Shetland is that bringing bands up from south always had to be subsidised by Shetland Arts. 

So it's not going to make money. When you buy a Mareel ticket online you're asked to make a charitable donation. It's a charity. Charities are not meant to make money. The Arts does not make money.

But do you think the Clickimin Centre makes money? Do you think any of the sports centres in the isles do? Bonhoga? The museum? The 52 community halls scattered throughout Shetland? One for every 400 people. In Northmavine alone there are five.

But have these facilities been sound investments? That depends on what we mean by an investment. In financial terms, probably not. Have they been good for the bodies of the people, the soul and spirit, the communities of Shetland? The answer would have to be yes. Those facilities may not have actually brought people and business here to work and live and have their being, but they have certainly made it easier to keep them here. Are they underused? Yes. Do they lose money? Yes they do? Are they worth it - yes they are. 

Will there be cutbacks and closures in the face of the current economic crisis? Probably. Roofs will remain unrepaired. Unless of course, we get together and repair them ourselves.

Mareel then. As good an investment as  our 47 Olympic swimming pools, our 19,000 football pitches, the state-of-the-art trap nuclear powered trap shooting facility, the horse racing course built secretly in North Roe and a major centre for international betting, doubtless sponsored by Paddy Power. The Bog snorkling circuit in Yell…so little used...

You may not have heard of some of these...

Is Mareel a good, a sound, investment? Well, I didn't think it was. I didn’t think it was when I toured the building before it opened, then after. I didn't think it was when I went to see Skyfall, one of the worst James Bond movies ever made. And realised I would have to drink coffee from cups without handles.  

But then I went again, as I’d been asked by a group that promotes remote learning in further education to do a presentation to the Scottish parliament, from Shetland, using digital technology. And I wanted to see if Mareel could help with that. It was then I met some of the young students who are assigned to Mareel from the Shetland College, who are perfecting their talents and learning all about not just recording, but the whole business of music. Studying for degrees up to a BA Honours level. It was then I saw the hidden stuff in Mareel. The recording and broadcast studios, the way it’s wired into the fibre optic Shetland Telecom cable. Not just so we can see a big boxing or football match in the cinema, but  so music, drama, speech, video and radio can be made and broadcast from almost any part of the building. To anywhere in the world.

In fact it was so advanced, so capable, that the technical team at the Scottish Parliament had to hurriedly upgrade their own systems to cope.

And so, over a fortnight, the technical team at Mareel and Shetland College enabled us to put together a seamless presentation to the Scottish Parliament. We had live music from the auditorium, live video interviews from the 60 North Studio, all mixed through the main sound studio. Afterwards, I received this email from the organiser, Gerry Dougan of Scotland's Digital Futures.

Yep - absolutely brilliant!  There was a real buzz in the parliament to be connected to Shetland so clearly, vision and sound The audience clearly understood that, where the technology exists, there should be more exploitation of it - perhaps Shetland could position itself, or already is, a leader in this respect.  And, of course, where there is no, or little technology, there should be more!

 Perhaps we can think of something else around learning, community, connectivity etc.?  The technology and associated skills are there - all that's needed is an idea (and some funding :-)).

“All that’s needed is an idea and some funding.” 

We have the people. Mareel is crucial to Shetland College’s courses and is helping to hone the skills and talents of a new generation of musicians and music producers. Is that a sound investment? I think it is. Without Mareel the proposed Creative Industries Chair for University of the Highlands and Islands will not come to Shetland. Would that be a loss? A huge one.

Because there is more to Shetland than swimming pools and squad dances. There is more to Shetland than beautiful boats hanging from a ceiling. There is more, dare I say it to Shetland than Vikings and Up Helly Aa. More than mutton. There is talent, ability and artistic brilliance and Mareel can be -  will be, I hope - a focus in developing that; in sharing it with the rest of Scotland and the world.

A loan of half a million pounds. Not to a salmon farmer who will sell off their assets to a multinational. Not to a fishing boat that may clear half a million pounds a trip. Per shareholder. Maybe those have been 'sound' financial and social investments in the past. 

But Shetland Island Council, I say make that loan. Make this sound investment - and sure, if you like co-opt three members of the Charitable Trust onto Shetland Arts to knock them into shape. In fact, if you like, move to bring the Amenity Trust, the Recreational Trust and Arts Trust more firmly under the council’s control, get rid of unnecessary duplication and inefficiency. Insist on safeguards. Demand interest.

I believe that would be a sound investment in Shetland’s culture and community. I believe it will reap dividends in the future. And someday Mareel might even be able to afford proper cups for the cafe. 

Ones with handles.

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