By JOHN ROBERTSON
THE COUNCIL has slapped a ban on discussing new building projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds until it completes those already languishing on the stocks waiting to go.
The idea of a moratorium was successfully pushed through by SIC services chairman Gussie Angus after members heard on Wednesday that delays meant they had not even started on buildings due to get under way this financial year. The setbacks to the new Mid Yell school and the Mareel cinema and music venue will have a knock-on effect on other big projects waiting on the SIC’s massive wish list for next year and beyond, prompting Mr Angus to haul down the shutters.
Some senior officials and the press were unclear as to the terms of his proposed moratorium but he said yesterday consideration of new projects on the wish list should cease except for those that are “ready to go”.
He said there was no point in continuing recent arguments over the order of priority for different projects because there was neither the capacity in Shetland to handle all the proposed work nor the money available to pay for it all.
Lucky schemes on the right side of the shutters include Mareel, the new Yell school, the £49m Anderson High School and some projects intended for next year, such as the Fetlar breakwater and pier, the £2.6m occupational therapy resource centre and the £3.9m Gremista landfill site. Left out in the cold are massively expensive proposals like the Bressay tunnel, fixed links to other islands, the new Whalsay ferry harbour and new care centres which Mr Angus said might cost £100m alone.
He said: “They’re all notional projects in the sense that they’re not ready to go.” Schemes like the care centres had no plans or costings drawn up nor was the ground identified and acquired, he said. He reckoned the ballpark estimate for all the desired schemes came to about £300m.
The moratorium had less to do with funding problems resulting from the council’s cash reserves plummeting during the global markets crisis and more to do with the council’s frustrating inability to progress big projects that it has already agreed the funding for. Members heard nearly £2.2m of the £20.9m agreed for the capital programme in 2008/09 was not going to be spent before the end of this financial year, made up of £1m unspent on the Mid Yell school, £900,000 on Mareel and £100,000 on the new Esplanade toilets.
At Wednesday’s Full Council meeting, members were asked to agree to use £988,000 of this slippage money for a host of small jobs instead between now and 31st March, including building maintenance, road improvements and bridge repairs, new vehicles, computers, photocopiers and improvements to care homes. Most of the spending is on so-called rolling programmes which had been cut back at the start of the year because of lack of funds.
Councillors were not told what the remaining £1.2m of slippage money might be spent on, only that it would be “used as directed by the council into the future”.
The delays to Mareel and the Yell school means they will have to take precedence in next year’s spending programme instead, knocking some of the next wave of big projects further back in time.
The problem of slippage and its consequences is one picked up by the council’s external auditors in its criticisms of the local authority’s money management during the last financial year and which they said was recurring this year. Fiona Mitchell-Knight of Audit Scotland said at Wednesday’s meeting the delays in building projects were a concern because they led to extra costs. She said the council needed to improve its project management. One of the key points for action issued to the SIC is for officials to report back to members on a regular basis if they see slippage occurring.
Councillor Rick Nickerson found it disturbing to be presented with the proposed increases in spending for rolling programmes without any justification being offered. He preferred the idea of making a saving of £900,000. But he gained no support.
Head of roads Ian Halcrow said the extra money earmarked for the roads rolling programme would be spent, explaining that it was actually what they had planned to spend earlier in the year before budgets were squeezed. He said the roads team had a number of schemes on the shelf ready to go and could also fill some of the posts for workers that had been kept empty due to lack of funds, which has led to some manpower shortages for services like gritting.
Of the opposite opinion to Mr Nickerson was councillor Iris Hawkins who saw no problem with spending slippage money wisely on rolling programmes in care homes, schools, homelessness and roads which she said included small projects that members want to see happening. She said the system of slippage each year was just how the council worked. “In an ideal world we wouldn’t have it,” she said.
Councillor Florence Grains agreed with the auditors, declaring that the £2m slippage, and the slippage that arises every year, should not be allowed to happen in the first place.