No going back on speed of cuts, warns new SIC political leader
Earlier today Mr Robinson, 43, defeated Allan Wishart by 13 votes to eight to assume the leadership mantle, succeeding the retired Josie Simpson. He will team up with a new convener, 49-year-old former police chief inspector Malcolm Bell, who steps straight into Sandy Cluness’s shoes having only just entered the council chamber.
After being elected with a landslide majority in Lerwick North on 3rd May, Mr Bell had little difficulty batting off the challenge of returning councillor Cecil Smith for the £20,294-a-year convener role, winning a secret ballot by 15 votes to six.
The election of Mr Robinson – an outspoken opponent of the last council – and Mr Bell appeared to reflect a desire among many of the 13 SIC newcomers to place clear blue water between the new administration and its predecessor.
Mr Robinson said the local authority had to face “harsh reality”, with the main priority getting its finances under control. He was insistent that the new administration must stick to plans agreed by the outgoing council in February, and strive to save nearly £30 million from the annual budget by the start of 2014/15, subject to a string of service reviews.
All but one of the 22 councillors was present at a sun-kissed Lerwick Town Hall this morning for the inaugural meeting of the 2012-2017 council. The average age of an SIC councillor is now 56, down from the mid-sixties at the start of the last council in 2007, though the number of women has fallen from five to just three.
The meeting lasted almost four hours as committee memberships and appointments to more than 40 external bodies were thrashed out amid a cordial and constructive atmosphere. Mr Robinson even said he detected “conciliatory messages” between Mr Wishart and Billy Fox, well-known foes over the divisive Viking Energy windfarm.
Both Mr Bell and Mr Robinson, whose position attracts a yearly salary of £27,058, have vowed to treat their respective positions as full-time jobs. Mr Robinson, who works as a pool attendant at Clickimin, said he was still in discussions with his employer, Shetland Recreational Trust, but intends to give his full attention to the leadership role.
The most eye-catching of the other appointments saw former Shetland Times editor and debut councillor Vaila Wishart appointed, unopposed, as chairwoman of the education and families committee.
With another round of school closure proposals likely to be in the offing – though much hinges on the outcome of the government’s Commission on Rural Education, due in August – it is one of the most challenging SIC briefs. Ms Wishart accepted difficult decisions lay ahead, but was clear that responsibility must lie with councillors who “need to stop putting staff in the frontline to take all the flak”.
Having missed out on becoming convener, Mr Smith grasped the opportunity to pick up where he left off in April, defeating newcomer Gary Cleaver by 15 votes to six to resume his position as social services committee chairman.
Two other major appointments were made without opposition: Alastair Cooper reassumes the reins of the development committee, while Mr Wishart’s consolation prize having missed out on the leadership is to be chairman of the wide-ranging environment and transport committee.
A number of council candidates said during the campaign that they wanted to see the cuts spaced out over a longer period of time. But Mr Robinson was adamant that the new council must not deviate from the planned budget, because to do so could jeopardise the local authority’s £200 million oil reserves.
He said: “I think it’s absolutely clear that if we don’t continue with the pace of cuts, that we’re going to leave ourselves in a situation where the reserves will be gone before we’ve made sufficient cuts. If we end up in that situation the harsh reality is that we will have to cut deeper.
“I think the only thing that may be up for some degree of discussion is exactly where the cuts fall,” he continued. “But I’m going to be quite hard with members here, and if somebody comes forward and says ‘we don’t want to cut something’, I think it’s incumbent upon the members to come back and say where that money could be saved from.”
Trade unions have bitterly opposed the pace and scale of the cuts, but Mr Robinson said he hoped to foster a better working relationship with the unions. He was involved in the single status pay talks a few years ago and hopes to “wind the clock back a bit to where we left off on single status, and begin the discussions there”.
Asked how he will approach the challenge of leading a council consisting of 22 independent members, Mr Robinson said he felt spreading the various jobs widely among members had been a good start. While there will inevitably be disagreements on occasion, he hopes that can happen without “splitting down into the sort of factions that the last council did”.
“I’m very keen to work with all members and deliver on their manifesto commitments, and the council’s corporate priorities,” he said. “Part of the problem with the last council was that there were certain sections of councillors that just didn’t have the ear of the leadership at all. I don’t want to see that happening this time around.”
Mr Bell, who was proposed by new North Isles councillor Steven Coutts, said he was “slightly overwhelmed” to gain the backing of his colleagues. He views the convener’s role as providing a bridge between the leadership and the rest of the council, describing the position as “the impartial chair, the conscience of the council as far as possible”.
“It is an honour and a privilege to take up this role,” he said. “Although many challenges lie ahead of us, I believe the best days for Shetland are still ahead, and I’ll work hard to develop links between the leadership, staff, and the wider community.”
Mr Bell was pleased to have attracted votes from both new and previous councillors, as he too wants to avoid “splitting into factions or cliques”. The member for Lerwick North said he and Mr Robinson had “complementary skills” and plan to be “very much a joint leadership team”. Mr Robinson joked that he was “thankful to have a policeman at hand that’ll maybe keep me in line”.
One of the top issues in the new leadership’s bulging in-tray will be seeking clarity on the North Boats contract from the Scottish government. A Court of Session hearing on Friday morning will determine whether the government can go ahead with signing the £243 million contract with Serco after rival bidder Streamline lodged a legal challenge.
Mr Robinson said the current limbo was “disappointing” and, with the contract due to be handed over at the start of the busy summer holiday period, the uncertainty was “certainly not helpful” to Shetland. He aims to speak with government ministers as soon as possible.
“I think all members would agree that we have been disappointed with the lack of engagement with the council, and the lack of information that we’ve got,” he said. “It didn’t help matters either that when our staff were consulted, they effectively had to sign up to maintain the confidentiality of the government while they were working for us – it was an utterly bizarre situation to be put in.”
In other appointments, the longest-serving councillor, Frank Robertson, will be putting his many years of experience to use as planning board chairman.
Newly-elected councillor Andrea Manson has unseated Robert Henderson – the only councillor absent from today’s meeting – to become the new harbour board chairwoman, having won out 13-8 in a vote.
Allison Duncan will be in charge of the audit and standards committee, having served an apprenticeship under recently-retired councillor Florence Grains in the last council.
Other appointments include former Shetland College boss George Smith as licensing committee chairman, while Drew Ratter will be chairman of the college board.
SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan said he felt the council had “got off to a flying start”, with an emphasis on teamwork to secure the best results for Shetland.
“We all worked extremely hard through the induction process to foster that, and I think that’s shining through and there’s no reason that can’t continue into the future,” he said. “It’s off to a very good start and I’m delighted, and I offer my congratulations to the new convener and new leader, and look forward to working with [them].”
Political leader: Gary Robinson
Convener: Malcolm Bell
Education and families committee: chairwoman Vaila Wishart, vice-chairman George Smith
Social services committee: chairman Cecil Smith, vice-chairman Allison Duncan
Development committee: chairman Alastair Cooper, vice-chairman Theo Smith
Environment and transport committee: chairman Allan Wishart, vice-chairman Michael Stout
Planning committee: chairman Frank Robertson, vice-chairwoman Andrea Manson
Audit and standards committee: chairman Allison Duncan, vice-chairman Jonathan Wills
Harbour board: chairwoman Andrea Manson, vice-chairman Robert Henderson
Licensing committee: chairman George Smith, vice-chairman Cecil Smith
Shetland College board: chairman Drew Ratter, vice-chairman Peter Campbell
You can view the full list of committee memberships here: http://www.shetland.gov.uk/