17th October 2017

Amenity trustees were unaware of true scale of looming crisis, source admits

Trustees at Shetland Amenity Trust were unaware of how bad the financial situation was, a source close to the trust has told this newspaper.

It is understood up to 12 jobs could go after it was revealed last week that the trust’s financial position was “critical”, with savings of at least £200,000 needed to be made this financial year.

A source told this newspaper trustees have been catching up with the financial picture following the death of general manager Jimmy Moncrieff in February.

They said while it was not an issue of impropriety, the true nature of the finances was kept away from trustees when Mr Moncrieff was general manager. To compound the problem, none of the trustees, they said, were from a financial background.

The £5.4 mil­lion Sumburgh Head Lighthouse project, which was led by the amenity trust and opened in June 2014, was cited as an example where there had not been enough thought as to how to tackle revenue costs when it was up and running.

The source added the trust had been trying to pull together figures for months and has been in talks with Shetland Charitable Trust, the council and the bank, as well as Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Shetland Amenity Trust’s financial position is “critical” – with savings of at least £200,000 needed this year

A separate source suggested that an independent review of the trust’s financial situation was likely to take place.

The trust said last week that staff pay was the largest part of its spending as it looked to get its finances under control, “so there is no other way to meet the savings target” than cutting jobs.

Former trust worker Robina Barton has written an open letter to the trust demanding that staff should not be scapegoats for the failings of others.

She said she is “deeply concerned” staff are facing job losses because of longstanding issues of financial mismanagement “that are not of their making”.

“I myself walked out of my job at the amenity trust two years ago because of this very failure to address the long-term sustainability of the trust, meaning that I was employed there on temporary contracts for nine years,” she said.

“I was not alone in this situation. The fact that nobody in management or governance questioned why someone would walk out of a job they loved with no job to go to, tells its own tale.

“Staff at Shetland Amenity Trust have never had a proper forum to express their views or concerns.”

Ms Barton said she applied to become a trustee last year “feeling that it might be an opportunity to try and raise some issues at governance level.”

But she said her bid was unsuccessful following a secret postal ballot process that did not include an interview.

In her plea to trustees, she urged: “The staff must not be made the scapegoats for the failings of others, and this will require an injection of cash from somewhere. Fortunately, Shetland, unlike other places, does have some money put away for a rainy day.

“For the staff of Shetland Amenity Trust, the proverbial rainy day has come. I believe the Shetland Charitable Trust both could and should provide a bailout and, potentially, a larger ongoing package of funding.”

The former geology project officer said: “Real people are facing the loss of their livelihood because others have failed to do what was required of them, and not just within Shetland.

“One must question the purpose of [charities regulator] Oscr, if not to ensure the proper financial governance of registered Scottish charities. I hope that at the eleventh hour some consideration will be given to these points before people are forced into unemployment.” For the full text of Ms Barton’s letter see page 10 of this week’s Shetland Times.

When asked about Ms Barton’s comments Oscr responded with an unattributed statement. “It is for the charity trustees of a charity to manage their financial affairs. On the basis of the further Shetland Times reports, the charity trustees of the trust look to be trying to deal with the issues that have occurred.”

Trustees have remained guarded this week following a press release issued by the trust last Thursday.

It was accompanied by a copy of a letter sent to all staff that stated financial problems stemmed, in part, “from the way the trust was run in the past, with new commitments and exciting projects being added whenever opportunities presented themselves, sometimes without enough foresight and planning for the running costs.”

Vice-chairman George Sutherland this week sent a letter to this newspaper in response to Ms Barton’s plea to avoid redundancies.

To read it – and for the rest of this story – see this week’s Shetland Times.

About Adam Guest

Reporter for The Shetland Times. I have also worked as a senior news reporter at The Press and Journal, The Barnsley Chronicle and as a freelance reporter for The Doncaster Free Press. Alongside news reporting I specialise in music and sports journalism. Pork pie lover.

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4 comments

  1. David Spence

    I am in support of Robina, and would investigate the failings of the Amenity Trust at the management level, and why the present position was not looked into before drastic measures, laying off staff, had to be taken.

    If the Amenity Trust is looking towards the Charitable Trust for future funding, one would expect the public to ask questions as to ‘ why has the Amenity Trust been left in this position? ‘.

    It is also very unfair to ‘ scapegoat the staff of the Amenity Trust ‘ as I am sure they were doing their duties admirably without knowing the mess the Amenity Trust was in……………until redundancies were on the cards. If anything, it looks to me somebody else may take the blame, but are in no position to defend themselves.

    The Amenity Trust does a fantastic job of promoting Shetland and keeping historical, archaeological and other aspects to Shetland’s identity alive……………………and should continue to do so.

    Reply
  2. Ali Inkster

    Seriously they are blaming a man that is not here to defend himself?
    Just what the hell are they doing putting themselves forward as trustees if they do not have the capabilities to do the job?
    As for the Sumburgh lighthouse you do not need a degree in accountancy to know that it was never viable. For the money spent on that a marine aquarium could have been built at Scalloway providing far more for tourists and locals alike with the benefit to marine science studies at the college to boot.
    Resignations would be apt before any layoffs of staff time for those at the top to take responsibility.

    Reply
  3. Christopher Johnston

    It seems to me that this may be an ideal time for Shetland to review the entire Trust arrangement. It may be advantageous to combine and simplify trusts for better focus and performance. I suggest a comparison with Quebec’s Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the major pension fund for Quebec. Yes, I know a pension fund is different, but it still receives public funding and invests to provide its services to the people.
    As a comparison, Caisse has assets of £175 billion and serves 8.35 million population, so the assets are £21,000 per person. SCT £287 million and serves 22,000 population, so the assets are £13,000 per person. They are comparable. The difference is that Caisse invests more heavily in Quebec – the latest project is a 51% share in a £4 billion expansion of the Montreal rail transport system in which Caisse will manage and operate. Perhaps Shetland should invest more heavily in Shetland.

    Reply
  4. Peter Hamilton

    Christopher, a review is overdue. SCT, as the mother ship, has a duty of care to oversee the appropriate function of the subsidiary trusts even though they are a free standing entities. SCT could adopt policies that put requirements on would-be recipients. Instead it is a policy-free zone. The oil funds were set aside to deal with social disturbance, but those left behind or harmed by the oil era scarcely get a mention. A social inclusion policy requirement could redirect funding accordingly, enabling parents on low incomes to take their bairns swimming or to the cinema, for example.

    Untold millions would have been saved had local politicians demanded democratic accountability when it was first seen to be necessary.

    Perhaps Tavish and Alistair will now agree it is time for a review, or maybe they are happy to remain schtum and await the next crisis. In the mean time it is clear to all that Shetland’s oil funds are neither secure nor best used. Who is ultimately accountable in Shetland’s one party state?

    Reply

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