SIC needs to learn how to talk, says new chief

SHETLAND Islands Council’s new executive director of infrastructure services wants to see an improvement in the level of communication – both within the local authority and with the public through the media.

In his first interview since taking up the post just over three weeks ago, Gordon Greenhill said he was looking to introduce media training for staff and also wants to see departments across the council talking to one another more in order to help inform better policy making.

Although not wanting to make too many prescriptive statements after a “ferocious” first month in the job which has left him without much time for “thinking and reflecting”, Mr Greenhill said he had inherited five “excellent” services from his predecessor Graham Spall but wants to see a “change in the culture” of the SIC.

“I welcome a real embracing of the press,” he said. “I’m actually looking at some press training for the staff within it. It’s not a case that they don’t want to embrace the press; it’s the need [for them] to be trained up so we actually get our message across more clearly to the public through the media.”

Mr Greenhill is working on recommendations for councillors ahead of major decisions to be taken in January as members have to decide upon capital and revenue budgets for next year.

He is keeping his cards close to his chest ahead of the “crucial” talks, but is clear on the importance of not giving people false hope – surely a reference to the long wish list of aspirational projects lying dormant on the capital programme at present.

One of the key decisions to be taken is on fixed links and councillors are already well aware that a multi-million pound tunnel to Bressay now looks likely to be unaffordable for some time to come. Mr Greenhill said it would be down to councillors to determine which direction to take, but talks repeatedly of the need for the SIC to cut its cloth in order to meet financial constraints.

Having met each of the 22 councillors, his view is that they have a “very good grasp of the financial realities”, but the consensual, party politics-free way of doing business means the difficulty comes in finding agreement on what needs to be done.

“The challenge we have is to keep the services at the fantastically high level but do it more efficiently,” he said. “Maybe slightly differently in some areas, but to the same standard [but] it would be wrong to jump to any early conclusions.”

Mr Greenhill has devoted virtually his entire life to the public sector after having to retire from professional football – he played for Falkirk for a year and had a two-week trial with Manchester United in the 1970s – due to back problems at the age of 22.

He arrived here with a reputation as something of an innovator in terms of introducing changes and, though he prefers to describe himself as more of a “builder”, said he was a big believer in trying new things – without being too proud to row back from policies or projects if they prove to be unsuccessful.

“Try things, see if the public like it, but be honest to admit [if] it isn’t working and change it,” he said. “Sometimes councils are good at starting things but not at stopping them – I’m a great believer in stopping them [if they’re not working].”

Since coming here to live in early December he has been struck by the isles’ natural beauty, which he described as “aesthetically and visually stunning”.

Although instinctively in favour of renewable energy, he is yet to take a view on Viking Energy’s proposal for a huge windfarm but said any industrial development must continue to be undertaken in a way which does not scar the landscape, adding he feels there has been “very sympathetic planning” to date.

He said: “There has been a tremendous boom period with oil construction rushed along, [but] it hasn’t been done in such a way that’s blighted the land. Maintaining that is a real challenge because the desire to have employment and proper use of the land has to be constrained in maintaining that natural beauty.”

Arguably most famous from his time at Edinburgh City Council for the introduction of wheelie bins, Mr Greenhill said a similar, voluntary policy in the isles remains under consideration but he will not be seeking to bring them in “for the sake of it”.

Despite wheelie bins on the face of it being a fairly minor issue, they are a matter which seems to inflame passion in many otherwise apathetic people.

Mr Greenhill pointed out that they were often introduced in other parts of the UK as a way of making labour savings but that is not a consideration here.

“That doesn’t fit in a Shetland islands context,” he said. “The introduction of wheelie bins is of benefit to some customers if they wish them, and a real benefit for the workforce – manual handling, on a wet day with black bags, it’s not the most pleasant vocation to undertake.

“We have to decide whether it’s worth pursuing or not. I’m a lover of wheelie bins, but I won’t put them in just for the sake of it. I went to public meetings in Edinburgh where folk were going to lynch me, then a year later you couldn’t take it off them, so I do know how contentious they are and it needs a lot of consultation.”


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