Sounding off: As the money runs out and the convener dithers, now is the time for ridicule pole
By JONATHAN WILLS
THE PHILOSOPHY behind what historians may one day call the “Sandynister” Movement was summed up at last week’s meeting of the council’s infrastructure committee. “Nothing much changes,” the convener told us wearily. Our “desires for our community” were “more than we can afford”, just like any other council. But we had “faced up to these problems before” and the difference from other councils was Shetland’s “reserves” which we could use “imaginatively”. In a recession the council had “a responsibility to spend” to sustain services and keep folk in work. Picking which projects to support was “what we were elected for” and “that’s what democracy is about”.
It’ll take more than imagination to unravel the snood of the council’s capital projects programme. What’s needed is determined leadership as we face some unpleasant, disappointing but inevitable decisions over the next few months. The figures are alarming: in its recent report, Audit Scotland criticised the SIC for having a capital programme of £69.86m for the next two financial years when no source of funds had been identified for more than half of it. This £36.66m funding gap doesn’t include the proposed £49m project to build a new Anderson High School. If you count the school, which at this rate will cost some £15m more than necessary (ie. 45 per cent more), the council aspires to spend a total of £161m on capital projects over the next four financial years.
That’s more than twice what we can actually afford and the local economy can sustain. At the most optimistic rate of spending – £20m next year and about £15m a year thereafter – it would take a decade, not four years, to complete this programme. Imaginative? Fantastic, more like. We’re told that paying for the new AHS could cost the council £5m a year, leaving only about £10m for everything else. The truly startling fact, admitted at last week’s audit and scrutiny committee, is that £10m a year is barely enough to maintain, repair and replace the buildings and plant we already have.
The sums suggest we have to cut our capital programme by at least 60 per cent. In any normal organisation, faced with such a gap between wish list and reality, the chairman would call a meeting of the board of directors and agree these urgent instructions to the chief executive and senior managers: 1. Find out how much money we can spend next year and in the following four years.
2. Go through the list of projects and get expert, independent, professional advice on how necessary each one really is.
3. List the things that (a) we really must have now, to stay within the law; (b) we need in order to carry on our normal business at agreed standards; (c) we want but can wait for a little longer; (d) we’d like to have some day but can’t afford at present.
4. Delete everything else from the wish list, now.
5. Bring the revised list back to the board for discussion and decision.
We are now trying to do this but we’re severely hampered because Shetland Islands Council recently got rid of two essential tools for the job: ? An executive committee where the convener meets regularly (weekly, preferably) with the committee chairs and senior officials to discuss which projects they can realistically take to the committees and the council for debate and decision; ? A logical system for scoring and ranking projects, with points allotted to each according to, for example, how urgent, useful and economical it is, how many people it will serve and how much money it will save.
In the absence of clear leadership or a rigorous method to pick projects on their merits, there’s some confusion, to put it mildly. As Chris Medley explained in a paper for the education and social care committee last week, with no points system to determine priorities, each committee will instead “decide the relative priority of each project, based on the committee’s aspirations for the next 4-5 years”.
The problem for Mr Medley and other managers is that no-one has written down exactly how this is supposed to work. Councillors have agreed “the need to maintain existing assets will be the first call on available resources” but the process by which this £100m-a-year public enterprise will then “merge all the priorities from each of the spending committees, to agree an overall programme” is, so far, a complete mystery.
Education and social care managers did indeed come up with a draft list of priorities for their committee to consider. We discussed it and suggested amendments but when the revised version came back to committee last week we ended up with enthusiasts for individual projects fighting their corners, just like the bad old days.
They didn’t like the old way of awarding points because it could produce anomalies. The solution was to devise a fairer system, not to chuck the yardstick over the side. Because there’s no longer a points system we have the absurd position, supported by the convener, that funding three more marinas for pleasure boats is currently a higher priority than the replacement of the Leog children’s home or the Eric Gray Centre. We already have 22 marinas in Shetland. At one for every thousand inhabitants we’re fairly well marinated and if some eela men have missed out on the pontoon bonanza, well, that’s tough.
Similarly, the £2.7m library project at Lower Hillhead (a brilliant scheme, by the way) is ranked more highly than building new care centres for old folk who can’t care for themselves. Bonkers, or what? It’s no time since the library was shifted to smaller premises in St Ringan’s Kirk at great expense. If this was a mistake, which it now seems it was, then, much as I love libraries, we’ll just have to make do until we can afford to put it right, maybe 10-15 years hence.
Over at the infrastructure committee, where the newly appointed director takes up his post next week (poor, unsuspecting soul), things are even worse. The various projects have been grouped into clear categories – those already agreed, essential maintenance of assets, legal requirements and things which would improve the service – but, in the absence of a director, no-one has tackled the huge task of suggesting numbered priorities. It became clear that if the committee sat down to argue our way through the list, line by line, we could be there longer than some of the projects would take to build.
Just to keep things ticking along will cost the infrastructure committee £15.8m a year for the next five years, assuming we replace the Whalsay ferry terminal (as we must), build the Fetlar breakwater (as we should) and renew ageing ferries (as we’d like).
The committee also has a shopping list of “service improvements” estimated at £17m a year. Even the most highly imaginative of us cannot see how this total of £32.8m annual capital expenditure (for just one committee, mind!) can be squeezed out of a total SIC capital programme of £10m per year. It’s unattainable and it’s about time the council leadership levelled with the people. Where’s the money to come from for a Bressay tunnel or, even more fantastical, a Bluemull Sound tunnel? They have no idea. Neither can happen in the foreseeable future. A dredging scheme and new west pier for Scalloway? Forget it. A new pier at Sella Ness? Get real.
So we’ve sent the chief executive off to review the list of infrastructure’s priorities and suggest how we might rank them in a realistic order “within the funds likely to be available”. None of us envies him his task, in these times of low interest rates, bear markets and bare cupboards, because all we know about the funds is that they’ll likely to be much scarcer than before.
Never mind: we always have our magical “reserves” to fall back on, don’t we? Er, no we don’t. The trouble with the reserves is they’re like the Post Office savings account my mother opened for me when I passed the 11-plus: the tenner she deposited wasn’t there to be spent; it was to earn interest of maybe ten shillings (ie. 5 per cent) a year – a welcome addition to my bob-a-week pocket money. If I spent the capital I’d have less pocket money. It was that simple. It still is. For 30 years, because the SIC and the charitable trust invested our money in a global casino that earned us all big bucks, we assumed our pocket money would never stop growing, we could use the capital to pay our debts and the rainy day would never come. Well, we have a financial doontöm right now but because we’ve got into the habit of eating the seed corn our golden geese are laying fewer eggs, if you’ll pardon my mixter o’ metaphors. At the charitable trust’s recent meeting we were even told that we no longer distinguish between capital and revenue! Just think about that one for a moment … If it weren’t so serious, it would make a good pantomime script: “Alexander in Wonderland” perhaps?
We no longer hear much about “iconic” projects. The public’s ironic laughter has silenced the iconophiles. “Totemic” is the new iconic in SIC committee papers. On the north-west coast of North America, native peoples still make totem poles to celebrate wise tribal leaders. In Alaska they’ve revived another cultural tradition: when a chief makes a complete pig’s ear of things, lets the potlatch budget go to hell in a handcart and becomes obstinately attached to wasteful pet projects, a specially commissioned artist carves grotesque and satirical likenesses of the failed leader into a large tree trunk and plonks it outside his longhouse. It’s called a “ridicule pole”. O Shetland Arts! Will you be ready when we need you?
Jonathan Wills is the councillor for Lerwick South