On-loan council chief executive Alistair Buchan believes he will leave the SIC in a considerably healthier state than he found it when he arrived in the summer of 2010.
Mr Buchan returns to his native Orkney at the end of this week after a two-year stint during which the local authority has undergone a radical overhaul and has embarked upon the start of a painful programme of spending cutbacks.
In an interview to coincide with his departure, Mr Buchan – who will be replaced by Mark Boden – said he was pleased with the progress being made in getting public spending under control after many years of profligacy.
He accepted there is some way to go in building bonds with the wider community, though with the prospect of school closures and other planned cutbacks there is likely to be further disharmony in the years to come.
“It will put a strain on that relationship, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “The best I can say is I think the community should take a lot more comfort now from how the council is run and organised – it’s much better equipped to do the right job.”
Mr Buchan suggested that making £12 million of savings last year, and banking £8 million of this year’s £15 million target by the halfway stage, were formidable achievements.
“If you’d asked people in Shetland a few years ago if that could be achieved, then I suspect the answer would have been pretty pessimistic.”
He said Shetland had benefited from unparalleled cash reserves in the past three decades, and it was “easy to take the soft options and not make the tough decisions when you’re working in an environment like that”.
But he said future sources of income, such as a projected £4.5 million from the Total gas plant, were not a get-out-of-jail card to avoid making cutbacks now.
“These figures were already factored into our projections,” he said. “Mention has also been made of Viking Energy, but it’s a long way off and the income is not directly to the council, either.”
Asked whether more should have been done to examine every penny internally before embarking on a programme of proposed school closures, Mr Buchan responded: “The simple and honest answer to that is, of course we’ve not looked at everything yet. But the scale of the savings that this council has to achieve will require both significant efficiency savings but also considerable savings from services.”
Mr Buchan, who two years ago likened the task he was facing to “trying to turn around a super tanker”, continued: “This problem didn’t just arise over the last few years, this problem is a build-up over many years and it takes time to alter that course. We’ve stopped the increases in spending in its tracks, and we’re very much moving in the opposite direction now.”
The quietly-spoken, personable Orcadian was brought in as a trouble-shooter following the turbulent crisis which culminated in a two-day Accounts Commission hearing in May 2010.
He said past history had placed “added pressure” onto the job, but he felt it had been a rewarding “privilege” to be at the helm of another island local authority.
“The vibrancy of the place is just amazing, and the opportunity,” he said, going on to thank all the staff, members of the public and councillors – including, by name, ex-leader Josie Simpson and Lerwick member Cecil Smith – for all of their support.
Mr Buchan said there had been progress on 29 out of 30 measures in the improvement plan he put forward to drag the SIC into the 21st century.
The one area where action is badly needed is in dispersing more jobs outside of Lerwick – a “tremendous opportunity” which would to help sustain rural areas.
“Our attention and priority has been focused on the more immediate problems that we’ve had to deal with here, but I remain convinced that Shetland is ideally suited for modernised working practices, people working remotely, family-friendly, low-carbon, reducing the amount of travel and exploiting broadband to the full.
“Culture change takes time in any organisation, and I think there’s no doubt there are other organisations around that are much better at that sort of thing than us.”
He singled out the building of the council’s new “White House” HQ at the North Ness as a vital development. It has been set out in such a way as to “set a limit, effectively, on how many jobs will be in Lerwick”.
“There’s still great scope to bring more people into this building and have greater efficiency – so I think time will show that’ll be a huge asset.
“Nobody likes spending money on office accommodation but, you know, we live in the modern era and you’ve got to provide your staff with proper, fit-for-purpose office accommodation that allows them to work efficiently.”
Last week, the council’s books were given a clean bill of health by Audit Scotland for the first time since 2005. Mr Buchan said removing the qualification on its accounts – partly thanks to the council deciding to group its financial statements with those of Shetland Charitable Trust – was vital as it had “acted as a lightning conductor”.
“I don’t know if people realise just how unusual it is for public bodies to have qualifications on their accounts,” he said. “Although people do have concerns about the status of the funds in the charitable trust, I don’t think there is a serious risk there about the future of Shetland’s oil monies.”