Wills threatens to call in ombudsman as war of words erupts in council chamber
By NEIL RIDDELL
A COUNCILLOR trying to get to the bottom of why the SIC has “wasted” millions of pounds while failing to get big projects off the ground is threatening to call in the public services ombudsman to investigate whether “serial maladministration” has occurred in the highest echelons of council leadership.
Convener Sandy Cluness was summoned before a special meeting of the audit and scrutiny committee this week to answer questions about why the SIC has spent £6.1m on three major capital projects – the new Anderson High School, the aborted Bressay Bridge project and the Mareel cinema and music venue – but continued to chop and change its policy, leading to virtual inertia.
Following what was a slightly confused and at-times fraught discussion in the town hall chamber on Tuesday morning, Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills said he would wait until a meeting of the Full Council in early December to see if there was any response from fellow members to the latest developments before deciding whether to take his concerns to the ombudsman.
Dr Wills voiced his disappointment that Audit Scotland appears “unwilling or unable” to investigate his concerns. He said: “On the face of it we have serial maladministration here, with very senior people failing to ensure that projects were well managed and provided value for money.”
Although Dr Wills insists he is not looking for Mr Cluness to resign and was at pains during the meeting to stress that he was not trying to hound individuals or put anyone in the dock, he is equally clear that the council needs to be run more efficiently.
He told The Shetland Times: “There is a lot of preaching about inclusiveness, partnership working … but most of the decisions seem to be taken by the two people [Mr Cluness and SIC chief executive Morgan Goodlad] at the top of the Town Hall, and then ratified later.”
Mr Cluness, who has accused Dr Wills of pursuing a “witch hunt” against him, said he did not understand the merits of the councillor’s initial approach to Audit Scotland asking them to investigate the council’s decisions. He said every piece of the expenditure – £3m on the AHS, £1.1m on Mareel and £2m on the Bressay bridge – had been through internal and external auditors and verified, adding their purpose as auditors was merely to ensure the books balanced and complied with the law.
When asked by this newspaper if he had considered calling a vote of confidence in his own leadership, Mr Cluness said he thought such a move was unnecessary. “There would need to be quite a few [more] members than Jonathan Wills making that point; as far as I know at the moment he is on his own.”
The meeting – to which Mr Goodlad sent his apologies because of an engagement at the dentist’s – was called following the publication of head of finance Graham Johnston’s damning report, which argued that new procedures needed to be put in place to avoid repeating past mistakes when considering major capital projects in the future.
The procedures behind such projects were examined and Dr Wills contended that in relation to each of the three in question the council had failed to follow its own guidelines to make a conclusive value-for-money decision at an early stage and to explore all possible options.
He said the SIC had failed to examine the cost of building the new high school on council-owned land at Seafield, that in relation to a fixed link to Bressay the cheapest long-term option of a tunnel had not been considered fully and that with regards to Mareel options for upgrading existing buildings had not been evaluated.
The money spent on the bridge project is particularly controversial, as it included £300,000 on legal fees to fight Lerwick Port Authority, which objected to the proposed development and subsequently submitted a £5.25m claim against the council for losses incurred when it had to re-tender a contract to dredge Lerwick Harbour.
The SIC continues to refuse to say whether it is covered against this claim, but if it is not the decision to fight the LPA could end up costing the public purse over £7m. Funding for the preferred option of a tunnel to Bressay has yet to be allocated beyond the ongoing Stag process.
Mr Cluness said that if the project had proceeded as planned Bressay would now be linked with the mainland and that everything had been done correctly to ensure the bridge could go ahead before the LPA decided to object. “If [a bridge] is no longer the policy that’s no problem with me,” he added.
Committee chairwoman Florence Grains staunchly defended the convener, saying it was “totally unfair” to pin the blame for decisions on him and that she was only interested in looking to the future.
In a dig at Dr Wills and others, she argued that certain councillors’ inability to accept agreed council policy was largely to blame for delays and uncertainties and said the priority had to be to press on and get the new AHS built as soon as possible. She invoked the final memo sent to fellow councillors by the late Cecil Eunson before his death in December 2007 in which he urged members to “stop bickering and get on with this”.
But Dr Wills said it was a councillor’s duty to raise problems in the details of any given proposal. “I have accepted lots of decisions,” he said. “But that does not prevent me trying to alter that if more information comes to light. What am I to do? Keep quiet about it? My conclusion – and I’m not looking for naming and blaming – is the procedure is already there; if we made a mess of it, it’s certainly a failing of councillors.”
The meeting also heard from head of organisational development John Smith, who said he took up a post as the council’s IT manager in the mid-1990s to find that the department’s performance on capital projects was “absolutely woeful”. Since then, he said, a very strict methodology had been put in place so that major IT projects no longer became a political issue.
Mr Smith said the involvement of council members was “integral” to any capital project but that it entailed risks too, and that it was vital that officials were working on the basis of dependable political decisions, though there was “no point staying on a runaway train that you have to get off”.
Even since the start of the present council, the appetite of new members to look at projects afresh has led to further delays in the building of the AHS and could have caused the £1m already spent by the council on Shetland Arts’ project to build Mareel going to waste had its commitment not been reaffirmed by the narrowest of margins earlier this year.
Mr Cluness, who has served as council convener since the 2003 elections, said it was in the nature of local democracy that when a council changes, people come in with different views and want to make changes, but that can have the unfortunate side-effect of creating uncertainty over big projects.
“We live in a democratic country,” said the convener. “Holyrood was going to cost £40m [and] ended up costing £400m. We’re not perfect but we do our best, we don’t always get it right but we [do] get a lot right.”
Lerwick North member Caroline Miller was forthright in her view that councillors need to clearly identify what the people of Shetland want delivered, to settle on a policy and then to stick to it. “The responsibility for policy formulation lies right here with council members,” she said.
Shetland Central member Andrew Hughson questioned whether Mr Johnston was confident that lessons were being learned given that £3m has already been committed to the Viking Energy windfarm without it even reaching the stage of planning permission. “Are there any lessons we can apply to that, or are we just seeing a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and heading on regardless?” he queried.
Mr Johnston said any lessons must be applied to the windfarm and that an “appropriate and sufficiently firm decision” had been taken on the Viking Energy project, adding that in his view the spending was “properly proportioned” to the scale of the proposal, though he accepted it was quite possible that planning permission would be refused.
He said he was confident that the new high school was now in the hands of a team which would bring the project forward, while the Stag process looking into fixed links to connect islands throughout Shetland was a “systematic and thoroughgoing process”.