Up to 40 public sector workers could be made redundant and the award-winning Shetland Museum and Archives may be turned into “nothing more than a large storage facility” if the SIC presses ahead with huge new proposed cuts.
That is the dire warning from Shetland Amenity Trust, which owns and runs the popular museum at Lerwick’s Hay’s Dock, in an explosive open letter addressed to all councillors today.
At a meeting on Wednesday, trustees were “deeply shocked” to learn that proposals for a 35 per cent cut to the museum budget over the next three years could go before councillors later this year.
Budgets for other services provided by the amenity trust on behalf of the council, including tourist body Promote Shetland and architectural heritage, are also expected to take a sizeable hit.
Chairman Brian Gregson warned that, in addition to the prospect of 20 redundancies within the museum, other “drastic” cuts would threaten a further 20 jobs within the trust.
The museum’s budget for 2012/13 stands at a shade over £1 million, already down nine per cent from last year.
Mr Gregson said SIC development director Neil Grant had informed senior trust staff that he would be recommending a further 35 per cent cut in the next three years, reducing funding to £681,000.
In the trust’s letter, Mr Gregson states: “While the trust is well aware of the financial difficulties faced by the council, these proposals, if implemented, would virtually close down the museum and archives services in Shetland. This would essentially turn the building into nothing more than a large storage facility.”
The £12 million museum was opened in 2007 and has since won a succession of prestigious awards. Mr Gregson described it as “the jewel in Shetland’s crown of heritage and culture”, attracting over 83,000 visitors every year.
As well as being a magnet for tourists, in 2012 alone almost two thirds of Shetland schoolchildren have been through the building’s doors.
Slashing the museum’s budget in this manner, Mr Gregson continued, would be “completely unsustainable”. Such a move also “flies in the face of the spirit and substance” of agreements between the trust, the SIC and the heritage lottery fund.
There is also anger within the trust at the way the proposed cuts are being handled. Sources said it felt as if the 35 per cent reduction was effectively being presented as a “done deal”, even though the proposals have yet to be viewed – let alone approved – by councillors.
In his letter, Mr Gregson says the absence of “any form of consultation or negotiation is lamentable”. On that point, Mr Grant told this newspaper the measures had been presented to amenity trust staff as part of an exercise to gather views before proposals are finalised.
Appealing to councillors to reject cuts to trust-run services, Mr Gregson writes: “Shetland Amenity Trust trustees are determined to take a firm stand on this issue to ensure that this magnificent success, the past investment made and its potential benefit is not lost to future generations.”
Under the terms of a 25-year agreement with the SIC, the trust has to provide buildings to house the museum and archives collections. It also operates both services, and in return the council must provide funding to cover the running costs.
Mr Gregson said that when the project for a new museum was getting up and running, the heritage lottery fund “sought and received” assurances from the council that funding “at an appropriate level would be maintained into the future including allowance for inflation”.
But the trust has calculated that there has been a 27 per cent cut in real terms, he said, with this year’s £1.035 million budget “already substantially below” what had been promised.
It is unclear precisely what impact a £350,000-a-year cut in museum funding would mean for its opening hours. One option not open to the amenity trust is introducing admission charges, which is prohibited under Scottish laws guaranteeing free entry to public museums.
Officials and most senior councillors have consistently said that they want to avoid compulsory redundancies within the SIC wherever possible.
But some sources this week were privately wondering whether that also applied to cutbacks resulting in job lay-offs within other organisations which rely on council funding. Not including the Hay’s Dock café/restaurant, the museum has 13 full time and 22 part time or seasonal staff.
The proposed cuts to amenity trust-run services form part of efforts to address the council’s crippling £35 million budget deficit. Other arms-length bodies are likely to be asked to absorb big cuts too.
Unison branch chairman Brian Smith said this week that he had been trying without success to get information about the council’s “directors for change” initiative for some time. Senior SIC officials have been tasked, along with ex-NHS chief executive Sandra Laurenson, with identifying big money-saving measures in most areas of council spending.
At the next Full Council meeting in early December, cost-cutting proposals will be tabled which are designed to reflect councillors’ priorities. At a series of seminars this summer, members indicated a desire to protect spending on services for the young and elderly, in particular education and social care.
In a short statement yesterday afternoon, an SIC spokeswoman said a medium term financial plan had been agreed in September aimed at balancing the local authority’s budget by 2017.
“Service managers are now preparing service proposals for councillors to consider later in the year,” she said.
“Where these proposals involve grants or service agreements with third parties, officers are holding discussions with the third party partners concerned to investigate where these savings can be made, where more effective service delivery can be achieved, and where services can be reduced or changed.
“At this stage Shetland Amenity Trust [has] been asked for [its] feedback on these proposals.”
One council source said everyone knew that “difficult decisions” were needed to get spending under control. While the museum is a highly valued public service, the source said nothing was “untouchable” and if councillors wished to protect schools, ferries and care homes then “something else is going to have to suffer”.