Wills takes case to ombudsman after joust with convener
A COUNCILLOR who believes a lack of leadership is to blame for Shetland Islands Council “wasting” millions of pounds while failing to get big projects off the ground is to take his quest for answers to the public service ombudsman.
Following the latest war of words between Jonathan Wills and SIC convener Sandy Cluness during a bad-tempered meeting on Tuesday, Dr Wills is to write to the ombudsman, having previously asked Audit Scotland to investigate the council’s failings in spending £6.1m on three major capital projects without a single brick being laid.
Mr Cluness appeared before the council’s audit and scrutiny committee in Lerwick Town Hall to answer questions about why the SIC has spent so much on the projects – the new Anderson High School, the aborted Bressay bridge project and the Mareel cinema and music venue – and continued to chop and change its policy, leading to virtual inertia.
The debate was in response to a report from head of finance Graham Johnston arguing that new procedures needed to be put in place to avoid repeating past mistakes when considering major capital projects in the future.
It examined the procedures behind such projects, and Dr Wills contended that in relation to each of the three the council had failed to follow its own guidelines to make a conclusive value-for-money decision at an early stage and to explore all possible options.
He said the council had failed to examine the cost of building the new high school on council-owned land at Seafield, that in relation to a fixed link to Bressay the cheapest long-term option of a tunnel had not been considered fully and that with regards to Mareel options for upgrading existing buildings had not been evaluated.
Mr Cluness, who has accused the Lerwick South councillor of pursuing a “witch hunt” against him, said he did not understand the benefits of Dr Wills’ decision to approach Audit Scotland asking them to investigate the council’s decisions.
He said every piece of the £6.1m expenditure had been through internal and external auditors and verified, adding their purpose as auditors was merely to ensure the books balanced and complied with the law.
Committee chairwoman Florence Grains staunchly defended the convener and argued that certain councillors’ inability to accept agreed council policy was largely to blame for delays and uncertainties, while Mr Cluness argued that local governments operate on a democratic principle and that the priority has to be to drive on and get the new high school built as soon as possible.
But Dr Wills said it was a councillor’s duty to raise problems in the details of any given proposal. “I have accepted lots of decisions,” he said. “But that does not prevent me trying to alter that if more information comes to light. What am I to do? Keep quiet about it?
“My conclusion, and I’m not looking for naming and blaming, is the procedure is already there; if we made a mess of it, it’s certainly a failing of councillors.”