By NEIL RIDDELL
A COUNCILLOR has hit out at the “serial incompetence” demonstrated by the leadership of the SIC, which could cost taxpayers in Shetland over £8m with nothing to show for it, and has reported the matter to Audit Scotland.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills estimates that around two thirds of the £3m spent to date on the project to build a new Anderson High School has been squandered, along with £1.9m on the aborted Bressay Bridge and the possibility of having to pay back more than £4.5m to Lerwick Port Authority (LPA) after it submitted a legal claim against the council over the project.
Dr Wills was speaking in response to a damning report from the council’s finance chief Graham Johnston which went before a meeting of the audit and scrutiny committee on Wednesday. As revealed in last week’s Shetland Times, the report highlighted that the council has spent £6.1m of public money on three major infrastructure projects – the proposed new AHS, the Bressay transport link and the Mareel cinema and music venue – without a single brick being laid.
In his report, Mr Johnston stated that councillors were considering too many projects in an arbitrary and isolated fashion and he told the committee there was “a tendency to fail to come to once-and-for-all decisions” and spend lots of money while “not getting very far”.
Committee members agreed that it was an excellent report and lamented that it had not come 20 years earlier. Vice-chairman Allison Duncan blamed the previous council, which he described as “gutless” for failing to take decisions when it was necessary and said the 2007 intake of councillors were “taking over deadwood”.
But Caroline Miller said members should not try to shift the blame onto others and that it was vital to get the input of officers into the matter of how capital projects are run. Chairwoman and chamber veteran Florence Grains agreed and said some councillors have shown “total disregard for council decisions” and that this council was “no better at that than any one before”.
She pointed out that the AHS project had been rumbling on for the best part of two decades and that the site and design were in place before members decided to “hop onto the roundabout again”. She fears Shetland’s youngsters will now end up with “an expensive design, cobbled together: a credit to nobody”.
Shetland West member Gary Robinson said he did not think the current council was “entirely blameless”. When he was elected to the SIC last year, Mr Robinson voiced his displeasure at the trajectory of the AHS project and said Mr Cluness had told him considering different sites for the school would set the project back by 18 months. He pointed out that, without looking at an alternative site, the council seemed to be no closer to starting construction on the AHS.
Dr Wills said that councillors tended to be good at grilling officers in the chamber and suggested it was time to start holding elected office bearers to account in the same way. His suggestion of getting SIC convener Sandy Cluness along to a future audit and scrutiny meeting to discuss the different projects and failings was accepted unanimously.
In his letter to Audit Scotland calling on the body to investigate the way the SIC has pursued the three projects, a call which is being backed by councillor Robinson, Dr Wills directed his criticisms at the council’s political leadership and wrote that the “avoidable loss of such very considerable sums of money, seems to me so serious that some further investigation is warranted to ensure accountability by those entrusted with the public pound”.
Over the Bressay Bridge fiasco, he criticised the leadership for “using emergency powers, without prior consent by a majority of councillors” to take legal action blocking the LPA’s dredging work and raised his concern that council officers have declined to tell him whether or not the council is insured against the LPA’s £5.25m claim for losses incurred. The SIC also refused to disclose those details following a freedom of information request from The Shetland Times earlier this year.
Site options for the AHS, which has gone back to the drawing board for a fourth time, “do not ever appear to have been properly assessed” and “personal preferences of the council leadership appear to have taken precedence over objective analysis of the options”, he claimed.
But the convener told this newspaper he felt that Dr Wills’ actions appeared to amount to a “witch hunt” and said he was clear that all the decisions taken by previous councils were made in a democratic manner and had been well-documented.
“There’s a trail there for anybody that wants to look at it,” Mr Cluness said. “I’m quite happy for the audit commissioner or anybody else to check this out. This seems like a bit of a witch hunt to be honest. I don’t think it will solve any of the difficulties we have with the [AHS] project – but if it satisfies Mr Wills that’s fine.”
With regard to Mr Johnston’s report, Mr Cluness said decisions were always made based on the reports put in front of councillors. “These big projects are very expensive, a lot of the fees are upfront and nowadays some can be as high as 20 per cent. Over a long period of time they can mount up.
“What I am convinced about is that councillors over the years have been determined to get this new school built as soon as they could, we haven’t always agreed on sites or whatever, but officers have had the same view in mind. Everybody concerned has been working to get this school up and running, which is so important.
“I think there’s always a case for re-evaluating what you’ve done. Hindsight is a great thing, but in all cases councillors proceed on the basis of reports they get from experts. If there is a better way then we’ll be glad to adopt it.”
The audit and scrutiny committee is to hold a special meeting later this year to discuss the shortcomings of the AHS project in more detail.