By NEIL RIDDELL
Councillors will have to hammer out a final agreement on their capital programme for the next year at a Full Council meeting in 10 days’ time after this week’s discussions descended into confusion and all three of its committees deferred any detailed discussion on priorities for the coming year.
After asking chief executive Morgan Goodlad to come up with a plan by reviewing and then ranking projects in a realistic order to reduce the pressure on the £20 million a year capital programme, the harbour board, infrastructure committee and services committee all held only brief discussions on the programme.
The problem started when councillors themselves decided to disband the capital programme review team and instead delegate prioritisation to the different boards and committees, but their failure to reach any conclusions this week means any further horse-trading will now be undertaken at a special SIC meeting on 17th February, leaving officials “operating in a vacuum” according to one source.
Once essential maintenance and committed projects are factored in, a capital budget of just £2.5 million remains for the entire council and members are now anticipating a “bun fight”, in the words of infrastructure committee chairman Allan Wishart, at the Full Council.
Mr Wishart said the meeting would be “wide open for bidding on peoples’ aspirations” and he felt it was imperative that a detailed five-year plan for the capital programme was drawn up as soon as next year’s budget is finalised.
He said: “We have to start on it right away. I do not want to get back to next January, February, some sort of rush where things have to be put through quickly, people don’t have sufficient time to consider everything when it happens.”
A number of councillors appeared perplexed by the documents put before them at yesterday morning’s services committee meeting in the Town Hall chamber, with Mr Wishart saying the different appendices on project priorities were “impossible to compare”, while Lerwick North member Caroline Miller simply said: “I’m confused”.
Convener Sandy Cluness, on the other hand, felt the whole thing was perfectly straightforward: “There’s a long list of projects because aspirations are so high – we have to make a decision on what we want to go ahead with, it’s absolutely simple.”
But Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills said members had been put in a “ridiculous situation” and he now wants “to know how we got into this state”. “We’ve got a pile of papers that members cannot make head or tail of,” Dr Wills said. “Hopefully the report at the council will be intelligible.”
Mr Goodlad told The Shetland Times this week that he felt there was now some clarity in direction “albeit not to everybody’s satisfaction” and that at a seminar with members in December he had given his “personal view” on “what we should work on”.
The latest capital programme proposal for 2009/10, totalling £19.7 million, is for around £7 million to be spent on maintaining existing assets, along with £4 million on the ongoing work on Mid Yell Junior High School – with construction due to start later this year – and just short of £3 million on cinema and music venue Mareel.
That leaves just under £6 million, of which £500,000 will go on health and safety work at Tingwall Airport, £342,000 on fire upgrades at care homes, £260,000 on the B9081 road in Mid Yell and £250,000 on the Scord Quarry.
A further £2.6 million has been laid aside for feasibility work on other projects, of which the biggest expenditure will be £360,000 on completing work to introduce 20mph speed limits at primary schools, £300,000 on work towards giving the people of Fetlar a breakwater and harbour, £500,000 on ferry terminals for Whalsay, Vidlin and Laxo and £400,000 on a replacement for the Leog care home.
Looking further ahead there is pressing need for a re-evaluation of the number of wish list projects which, in the current financial climate, simply cannot be countenanced.
The projected budget for 2010/11 alone, without including any expenditure on the new Anderson High School, currently stands at £27.9 million and that will have to be almost halved in the next 12 months, meaning the prospect of the SIC finding funding for projects including the Fetlar breakwater and Whalsay terminals, let alone any notion of fixed links (the Bressay tunnel has an estimated price tag of £44 million), will have to be called into question.
The capital programme is due to be cut to only £15 million a year from 2010/11 onwards and, if agreement is reached with the charitable trust for it to pay for the AHS building, lease payments of around £4-5 million a year will have to be taken from that budget. With ongoing maintenance to existing assets likely to swallow up half the budget, it could see the SIC’s capital spending being virtually paralysed, bar the school, for a number of years. In the meantime, the council may elect to delve into its oil reserves to finance any spending on the AHS in the coming financial year.
In light of that, the services committee yesterday agreed to Mr Angus’s suggestion that the charitable trust be approached with a view to opening discussions over how to fund their £30 million-plus wish list of care homes, which will be needed by 2019.
Meanwhile, during a short debate at Tuesday’s meeting of the infrastructure committee, West Mainland councillor Frank Robertson said it was clear there was “very little room for manoeuvre” and that it the SIC “must not include projects which we cannot continue, because that raises local aspirations”.
Dr Wills suggested a number of economies could be found and advocated slashing the £1.1 million vehicle replacement budget (see separate story) to £500,000 and the IT budget from £801,000 to £500,000. “We never could afford Mareel and this proves it,” he continued, going on to suggest there might be a need to suspend the planned upgrade to the Haggersta to Cova section of the A971 road and also call a halt to the Fetlar breakwater and Whalsay ferry terminals in future years.
South Mainland member Allison Duncan felt the latter two should remain where they are on the list but agreed with Dr Wills’ other suggestions. Mr Duncan also called for a previously proposed £530,000 spend on marinas – which had in fact already been removed in the latest proposal – to be halted because it was “a waste of good public money”.
His fellow South End councillor Rick Nickerson asked that funding be found for the Sandsayre Pier in Sandwick, on the grounds that it will be able to secure 60 per cent external funding and the fact that there are some 4,000 visitors to Mousa every year, before the discussion was called to an abrupt halt by Mr Wishart, who said sense would have to be made of the proposals at the full council on Tuesday week.