Developing discord in Shetland

ACCORDING to current plans, come 2010 Shetland will be opening the doors of a brand-new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art cinema and music venue, named Mareel, on the waterfront in Lerwick. The scheme has been in the pipeline for well over a decade, and last month seemed finally to be nearing fruition when Shetland Islands Council (SIC) approved planning permission for the £9.3 million building, following the award of a £2.12 million Lottery grant in March.

However, this all still depends on the outcome of a full council meeting at Lerwick Town Hall tomorrow. Opponents of Mareel have tabled a motion which, if passed, would require SIC to review its 5.1 million commitment to the proposed venue. Any extended delay arising from such a review, say its supporters, could well kill off the project altogether, through a combination of cost inflation and the risk to external funding.

For those in favour of Mareel – a Shetland dialect word for sea-borne phosphorescence – the new facility represents a vital investment in Shetland's future, as its population ages and its traditional industries decline. For others, the centre is an unnecessary and unaffordable luxury, especially when weighed against other pressing demands – care homes for the elderly being the most oft-cited example – on SIC's shrinking capital budget. After a long period of prevailing consensus over plans for the venue, it has latterly become an increasingly divisive and contentious issue on Shetland, and to some degree mirroring the wider debate over the cost and value of subsidised arts in Scotland as a whole.

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In a place with such a remarkably fertile musical culture, Shetland's lack of a dedicated venue has long seemed a glaring one, despite resourceful use of both rural community halls and the Clickimin sports centre in Lerwick. The town's last cinema, the North Star, closed in 1989, with the campaign for a replacement formally launched back in 1996. Mareel certainly aims to plug these gaps – and more besides – in ambitious style.

An acoustically isolated auditorium – akin to those at the Sage in Gateshead – will hold up to 750 for standing concerts, with raked retractable seating for 340. The main cinema, with a capacity of 160, will boast both digital projection and surround sound, alongside a 35-seater studio screening space. Besides a split-level caf-bar – for acoustic gigs or stand-up comedy – and other seating/meeting areas (complete with free wi-fi), the building will house extensive educational resources, to be used in conjunction with music, production and performance technology courses run by Shetland College. Planned facilities include a recording studio, a multimedia production suite and rehearsal spaces with sprung floors for dancers. The whole place will be fibre-optically wired, enabling live performances to be beamed both in and out, while LED lighting to be incorporated into the external design will create shifting sculptural effects with the architecture after dark.

The man primarily charged with delivering this vision is Gwilym Gibbons, head of development agency Shetland Arts, an independent charitable body which will also run Mareel if and when it opens. With the venue's proposed site right next door to the new Shetland Museum and Archives, Gibbon describes an inspiring picture of these twin facilities at the heart of a burgeoning cultural quarter in Lerwick. Surrounding warehouses and industrial units are already earmarked for conversion into studios and workshops, with Mareel envisaged as the social and networking hub.

"For me, it really is about a future for Shetland – or not," Gibbons says. "Apart from the obvious leisure aspects and quality-of-life issues, I think Shetland has a real opportunity right now to develop itself as a centre for the creative industries. It already has a very strong international profile to build on, in terms of music and crafts particularly, and as we become more digitally connected, I think creative industries could play an increasingly important role in the islands' economic diversification, as fishing and oil revenues continues to decline.

"But for that to happen, you need some of the core ingredients that professionals in this sector look for, be it in terms of a decent social life, proper facilities to work with, or conducive spaces to meet with other practitioners."

Another staunch local advocate of the project is David Gardner, former music development officer at Shetland Arts, now running his own music management and consultancy business. He highlights Mareel's planned educational resources: "The council spends something like 750,000 a year on teaching music to kids in schools, but at the moment to take it on to further or higher education they have to leave the island. If we invest this money in the local infrastructure and industry, we can provide really high-quality, hands-on training here, working in a real live venue, which will hopefully even attract students to come here from outside.

"If Mareel, between its social aspects and its educational resources, can tip the balance so that even 10 or 15 more young people a year stay here, end up settling and getting jobs and having their families here, then that really should be factored into its long-term balance sheet, hard as these things are to quantify."

For independent councillor Dr Jonathan Wills, however, one of the nine signatories to tomorrow's opposing motion, the case against Mareel is all too easily quantifiable. "The council cannot afford it," he states bluntly. "We're facing a financial crisis as it is. The oil revenues from Sullom Voe are dwindling fast, there have been losses from the stock market crash, and the capital programme (which includes two schools and a ferry terminal] is already over-subscribed. Given these and numerous other more pressing priorities, to proceed with Mareel as it's currently proposed would be a breach of our duty to the public."

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Gibbons, however, disputes this financial picture: "The capital programme was underspent by 2 million last year. There's also a paper going to the same council meeting tomorrow which would take the new high school out of the capital programme, to be financed separately, which removes any conflict in relation to that. Mareel is currently ranked 13th on SIC's list of about 30 deliverable priorities, and that's after a long and rigorous process of evaluation. If those priorities are going to be revisited, then that should be done as a whole … not by plucking Mareel out of the middle."

"At a broader level," he continues, "thanks to its oil money, Shetland is the second wealthiest council in Britain, after Westminster in London. We have 500 million in reserves, and no-one's talking about spending that. It really saddens me to hear about young people being told that if Mareel goes ahead, their granny will be shipped off to a care home in Aberdeen.

"To me this is less about the money per se than about how Shetland sees itself, where it positions itself, and what it believes it can be about in 20 years' time."