Shetland Islands Council took a marathon eight and a half hours today to thrash out a budget for next year which will lop £16 million off its spending.
Councillors’ reluctance to agree to hasty cuts in sensitive areas, particularly those targeting the young and elderly, means officials will be working hard on a raft of reviews to evaluate services in the next few months. It means a number of unpopular decisions will be left for a new batch of councillors after May’s elections.
Among the threatened services given at least a stay of execution are day care services, the Freefield lunch club, Viking Bus Station, winter gritting and music tuition. A major review is already well under way into slashing ferry costs, and now the entire education system is to be scrutinised for £3 million a year savings (see separate story).
SIC political leader Josie Simpson pronounced himself “very pleased” after the arduous session in Lerwick Town Hall, which ended at 6.30pm on Thursday with a £120 million budget in place for 2012/13. A further £14 million of cuts will come the year after.
At the start of the day it had been proposed to draw £9.6 million more from the oil reserves than is apparently sustainable. After hour upon hour of deliberation that figure rose to around £10.9 million, which head of finance Hazel Sutherland said was “within the parameters” of the two-year budget plan.
During the day members had to wade through proposals for 158 “efficiencies” and 80 service cuts.
The threat to close day care services throughout Shetland to save £2 million a year was at least delayed until a full review of the activities and the impact of their loss is carried out.
It had been proposed to quite literally shut down and lock the doors on the parts of the care centres which are used by visiting old folk – many of them lonely and isolated – who come for meals, activities and warmth and companionship.
If the closures had to happen then some councillors would have preferred it if they were phased in rather than what Rick Nickerson called the “pretty abrupt” end proposed by officials. Gussie Angus said as many as 70 part-time jobs were at stake.
Social services committee chairman Cecil Smith said officials should look into opening up public halls for lunches as an alternative, as apparently already happens in Virkie.
Introducing the cuts proposals for community care, Mr Smith admitted some people would no longer receive their care services and others would see a reduction in choice. Jobs would go too, although it is expected that most workers will be offered alternative employment elsewhere in the council.
Another controversial cut which has been avoided for the meantime while the service is reviewed is the closure of the Freefield Centre where cheap lunches are provided for the over-60s and disabled folk who have been referred there by social workers. An instant campaign set up on Monday by Doreen Williamson and fellow Freefield customers helped stave off closure for now.
Allison Duncan said the proposed cut, to save £80,000, was “another attack on the most vulnerable”, some of whom did not see another soul from one day to the next. “Freefield has been successful for a long time and I don’t see why we should change it,” he said. “Leave our old people alone.”
Rather than targeting the closure of specific schools, the whole education service will be mined for £3 million savings. SIC education spokeswoman Betty Fullerton said afterwards that she viewed a full-scale review as “a fairer way of doing it”, rather than “picking off” individual communities.
S5 and S6 pupils at the Janet Courtney Hostel will have to pay £25 a week for their breakfast and dinner, though it will be means-tested. Opposition from councillors including Mr Nickerson and Mr Duncan was swept aside by nine votes to six.
Members were told by head of children’s services Helen Budge that the cost of a hostel place was still heavily subsidised, and that the £25 would cover the cost of meals only. Mr Duncan described the charges as a “damned disgrace” and fumed that some university-bound students would start paying fees two years earlier.
Culture spokeswoman Florence Grains and Mr Nickerson were exercised about plans to raise music tuition fees by 50 per cent and cut the proportion of pupils being taught an instrument from 40 per cent to 25 per cent. The measures could tally up to more than £350,000 over two years.
Mr Nickerson said the cuts and extra charges risked “destroying” 40 years of developing top-class musicians. Later in the day Mrs Grains lost a vote to remove the tuition fee measures 15-4 after members heard a review is already underway and will report back to councillors shortly.
A ploy from Bill Manson to slow down the adoption of maximum primary school class sizes was rejected as plans were deemed to be already too far advanced.
The neighbourhood support workers and community workers who were for the chop have been saved to bring harmony and deter dog poops for another day. The £80,000-a-year service will be reviewed.
Convener Sandy Cluness and Jonathan Wills combined to stop support grants worth £37,000 a year being removed from Shetland charities Befriending, Advocacy Shetland and Family Mediation.
The gritting and snow-ploughing service is going out to review, looking for a cut of £375,400 this year. Concerns were expressed about care workers not being able to access clients or suffering car accidents if cutbacks meant side roads were not kept clear to the usual high standard.
The Viking Bus Station building, set for closure along with its rural freight centre, is now at least to have its future reviewed first. So will the plan to stop buying and putting up three Christmas trees in Lerwick every year, costing £11,400.
Councillors also came up with ideas of their own, mostly from Dr Wills, to save potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Those which will be looked at are:
* Farming out the council’s remaining sports and leisure services to Shetland Recreational Trust, which is funded by Shetland Charitable Trust rather than the SIC;
* Cutting fees paid to the fund managers who speculate on the money markets with council reserves;
* Merging the development department’s marketing section with the local tourism body Promote Shetland.
Dr Wills’ idea of clawing a further £1 million from the economic development unit, which is contributing proportionally less to the cuts than key public services including education and social care, was rejected in favour of drawing a little more from the reserves.
Mr Simpson said he had been “a little worried” at the direction being taken on Thursday morning when the debate lacked focus, but things had come together in the afternoon.
He lavished praise on staff for their hard work in setting a platform for councillors to address the grave financial position, and said he believed the right balance had been struck between safeguarding services and protecting the £200 million oil reserves.
Chief executive Alistair Buchan said he was content there were enough staff resources to carry out all the reviews asked for. He was unable to put a figure on the job losses the cuts will cause, but stressed that compulsory redundancies remain an “absolute last resort”.
By Neil Riddell & John Robertson