26th February 2017

WATCH: Tough times ahead for councils, audit commission says

Shetland Islands Council can expect a further period of austerity over the coming years, according to an Audit Scotland report commissioned by the Accounts Commission.

Shetland, along with the Western Isles, remains the local authority with the highest funding per head in Scotland at just over £4,000, compared with Edinburgh whose population receives around £2,400 per head.

But the report warns of a further few years of financial austerity for local authorities, due to a reduction in block grant from Holyrood, while councils rely increasingly on their own revenue raising powers.

The Scottish Government provides around 60 per cent of councils’ total income. Over the past six years, up to and including 2016/17, Scottish Government revenue and capital funding for councils fell by 8.4 per cent in real terms.

Publishing the report last Monday, Audit Scotland said: “Each council has its own particular challenges but all councils face financial shortfalls requiring further savings or using reserves. They need to change the way they work if they are to make the savings needed.”

The report warns that further reductions are expected while demand on key services, particularly social care, continues to rise. Councils also face increased cost pressures in areas such as pension provision.

SIC political leader Gary Robinson says work has already begun to address the issues pointed out in the report. Photo: Dave Donaldson

SIC political leader Gary Robinson says the government will have to pay for fixed links. Photo: Dave Donaldson

The report states: “Councils face tough decisions around their finances that require strong leadership and sound financial management. Long-term financial strategies must be in place to ensure council spending is aligned with priorities.

“Decisions need to be informed by well-developed medium-term financial plans and budget forecasts that allow councillors and officers to assess the impact of approved spending on their longer-term financial position.”

Accounts Commission deputy chairman Ronnie Hinds echoed the concerns of the report, saying: “Councils are generally doing a good job with their finances in difficult circumstances. But pressures continue to increase on a number of fronts at the same time as they face the prospect of further reductions in their funding.

“It’s vital that councillors and officers set medium and long-term financial plans based on clear priorities for the services they provide to their communities”.

That financial reality would appear to deal a further blow to hopes of establishing fixed links between mainland Shetland and Bressay, the North Isles and Whalsay – a subject that was resurrected at a meeting of the association of community councils in October and has been the source of tit for tat correspondence between Whalsay Community Council member William Polson and SIC leader Gary Robinson.

In a letter to SIC chief executive Mark Boden, Mr Polson ties tunnel provision to the building of a fish processing factory and renovation of the harbour, which he says is in dire condition. He also says that council officials should perform a U-turn propose building the fish factory in Whalsay after having previously recommended rejection of the proposal.

The piers in Whalsay are in “imminent danger of collapse” says Mr Polson, while the case for the fish factories is supported by a Highlands and Islands Enterprise report. He also suspects the reasons given by the SIC Director of Development for the dismissal of the project were “erroneous and without foundation”.

According to Mr Polson, in a previous correspondence with Mr Boden, a Norwegian firm is keen to build two fish factories in Whalsay which would bring site rental money plus harbour landing dues to the SIC.

If the harbour was renovated and Whalsay linked by tunnel to mainland Shetland and given the huge fish stocks around the isles, then the isle would boom, according to Mr Polson.

But in replying to Mr Polson, the SIC political leader has stated that the council cannot make that sort of infrastructure investment, which would necessarily rely heavily on loans, without having some sort of guaranteed return on its money.

A meeting of the council’s Environment and Transport Committee on Tuesday heard that fixed links were still on the Scottish Government’s agenda as part of the Stag transport appraisal.

Mr Robinson said later: “The council is still engaged with the Scottish Government about our inter-island links and we have persuaded the Scottish Government to look at fixed links as well as replacing ferries and terminals and I think that really is important. We would be looking to the Scottish Government to, at the veyr least underwrite, if not undertake, the construction of any fixed links to the islands.”

In his correspondence Mr Robinson points out that Faroese tunnels have been paid for by tolls and that these links are far more heavily used than a Whalsay tunnel is likely to be. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has apparently stated it will only make grant money available for ferries and has blocked the use of tolls on any fixed links, thereby removing that source of revenue for such a venture.

He adds: “This leads me on to the wider issue of risk. The technical and financial risks of tunnelling are high. One tunnel near Bergen saw not one but several tunnelling companies fail when, in spite of thorough surveying, unexpected conditions were encountered. Such risk is far too high for Shetland Islands Council to bear. Any project would have to be underwritten, if not undertaken, by government and while I’m not precious about which government, the Scottish Government would seem to me to be the obvious one.

“You’ve stated on numerous occasions that the council rejected an offer of loan funding from the Norwegians – in truth the council has never been in a position to accept an offer – that’s not how it works. It would be strange days indeed if it were the case that anyone could bring an idea to the council and expect them to pay for it on the basis that loan funding was available. The normal rules of procurement dictate that public bodies decide to do something then run a procurement exercise – not the opposite way around.”

Mr Robinson adds that without a guarantee of business from any proposed fish processor it is “a simple fact that the council cannot borrow to invest without a reasonable certainty of return. It may have been different in the past but that’s how it is now.”

Finally, he invites local interests to set up their own business. “Notwithstanding all of the above why, if this is such a good idea, is the council being asked to contribute at all? Apply for a works license and don’t let us hold you back.”

The last two decades have seen the closure of a slew of fish factories in Lerwick and Scalloway, while Europe’s largest pelagic processor, Shetland Catch, relies on much of its supplies from North-east Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian pelagic boats while local vessels land the bulk of their catch to Norwegian factories.

About Peter Johnson

Reporter for The Shetland Times. I have also worked as an employed and freelance reporter and editor for a variety of print and broadcast media outlets and as as a freelance photographer and film maker/cameraman. In addition to journalism, I have experience in construction, oil analysis, aquaculture, fisheries, the health service and oral history.

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6 comments

  1. John Tulloch

    Gary Robinson is quoted above: “It would be strange days indeed if it were the case that anyone could bring an idea to the council and expect them to pay for it on the basis that loan funding was available.”

    It would, indeed, Gary. However, that is not the correct order of events here.

    Correct me if I am wrong but did not the full council decide in June 2010 against renewing the Whalsay ferry system and to explore the option of fixed links instead?

    So following up the Norwegian loan offer would have been in line with council policy and that didn’t happen. What happened was the Norwegian input into fixed links was terminated in the first few days of this council, without any change in council policy, and no discernible advance has been made since.

    Who authorised that?

    Reply
  2. i tinkler

    “SIC political leader has stated that the council cannot make that sort of infrastructure investment, which would necessarily rely heavily on loans, without having some sort of guaranteed return on its money.” Pity, no one was thinking that way when shelling out millions for Viking Energy. Incidentally, the Mareel art form seems a little devoid of public information recently. How is that going folks, a few years down the line now, has the great “game changer” changed the arty game for the better in Lerwick or is it still just a cinema, bar and cafe. (very expensive and plush HQ for Shetland Arts, must not forget the empire builders)

    Reply
  3. John Tulloch

    From the article: “That financial reality would appear to deal a further blow to hopes of establishing fixed links between mainland Shetland and Bressay, the North Isles and Whalsay.”

    At first glance, that may appear so however the ferry system already exists and must operate satisfactorily in future.

    Parts of the ferry infrastructure are in poor condition e.g. the Whalsay terminal linkspan, designed for vessels a third of the size of current ones, was condemned in a 2007 inspection as at risk of being “rendered unusable”. Does the SIC have a plan for such an eventuality? How long before the service could be reinstated?

    The council is living on borrowed time and large sums will require to be spent to avoid a potential transport crisis for isles residents.

    Strong evidence exists that fixed links are cheaper to install and operate than a new ferry system, potentially saving £millions per year on every route.

    If the council and Scottish government are short of money and expect financial conditions to worsen, surely, the sensible thing to do is to take minimal action to ensure security of the service by arranging the more economic, long term solution?

    Reply
    • Christopher Johnston

      Ferries = More permanent SIC employees than fixed links.
      More SIC employees = More potential votes and patronage for Councillors.
      The object is to have as many employees as possible, not as few.

      Reply
      • Brian Smith

        Snore.

      • David Spence

        I would think Christopher, if, for example, there was a fixed link from Lerwick to Bressay, this would, I suspect, increase employment not only for the island but for Lerwick as well, especially, potentially, in the housing market. It would also, as a guess, increase the value of property in the island as well…………selling as well as buying.

        As well as this, businesses in Bressay could expand their trade greater by having a fixed link, as, I project, tourism would benifit a lot more from such a link. This would put the Council in a position where they would have to provide public transport for the island, thus improving such a service would encourage more people to visit, businesses to expand etc etc.

        Why such a link has not been constructed before beggars belief, considering all the postives it would gain for the island and Shetland as a whole.

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