By NEIL RIDDELL
The son of 1970s council chief executive Ian Clark has been chosen as the successor to Morgan Goodlad as the top official in Shetland Islands Council. He immediately vowed to try and cultivate a “go-getter, entrepreneurial spirit” in the isles.
Convener Sandy Cluness announced at a meeting of the Full Council in Lerwick Town Hall on Wednesday morning that David Clark, 43, had been chosen from a shortlist of five candidates following interviews and presentations held on Monday and Tuesday.
Mr Clark has his own Lanarkshire-based consultancy firm, Dalzell Projects, which has worked with a number of local authorities, particularly in the London area, and boasts experience of having worked on several multi-million pound capital projects.
His father was credited with helping to navigate the council towards a favourable deal with the oil industry when it first arrived in the isles in the mid 1970s, giving him a legacy as a man who played a major role in securing a long-term oil fund for future generations.
Mr Clark, who is married to wife Maureen and has no children, told The Shetland Times he was “excited” and “thrilled” about the prospect of returning to the isles. He was educated at Bell’s Brae Primary School until leaving with his family shortly before his 11th birthday. He said: “I’m delighted to be given the opportunity and I’m really looking forward to making the move back with my wife.”
He said his father was “proud and excited” that he was following in his footsteps, but stressed that the people of Shetland shouldn’t look to the past for clues of what to expect. Mr Clark said: “While I’m very proud of what my father achieved, I come now on my own terms, as my own man who’s made his own way in the world – they will be getting Dave Clark, not Ian Clark.”
An individual whose own company’s website describes him as a “no-nonsense” character, outside of work he cites a strong interest in sailing (“working in London my feet haven’t touched the deck of a sailboat for about five years, so I’m looking forward to getting back into that again”), Scottish history, collecting antiques, motor sports, sports cars and Cuban cigars.
If all goes well he should be in a position to start on 1st June, three days after Mr Goodlad departs the hot seat. After making the announcement before a packed council chamber, Mr Cluness – who has had a very close working relationship with the outgoing chief executive – joked: “I’m tempted to say it’s out with the old and in with the new.”
A “delighted” convener said one of the major attractions in choosing Mr Clark – who was the preferred choice of a clear majority among the 22 councillors when it came to a vote – was his comprehensive experience of delivering major capital projects. “He has a lot of experience in looking after quite big capital projects for local authorities, mostly in bits of London. [He is a] good match for us – we have folk that do deliver services very well; somebody with experience of big capital projects I think would be very useful bearing in mind things like the [new Anderson High School].”
The unsuccessful candidates included three highly capable senior officers within the SIC – finance chief Graham Johnston, executive services director Hazel Sutherland and assistant chief executive Willie Shannon – along with an external female candidate. There were initially 40 applications from around the world for the £97,000-a-year job before the field was whittled down to five.
Mr Cluness said that while it was “an interesting fact” that Mr Clark’s father was the first ever chief executive of the SIC, there was no sense in which nostalgia played a role in the decision as far as he was concerned.
‘I’m coming as a servant of the community’
After leaving Shetland towards the end of the 1970s, Mr Clark has more or less lived in Lanarkshire ever since. He earned a degree in electrical engineering from Strathclyde University and kicked off his career in the steel industry. In stark contrast to his predecessor, who spent a chunk of his career with the Unilever conglomerate, Mr Clark also became involved in the trade union movement and played a major part in a campaign to overturn the proposed closure of the Dalzell Plate Mill in Motherwell.
That was lauded as a significant achievement as he played a key role in persuading the government and British Steel to support proposals for investment in the plate mill, which has thrived over the past 20 years and continues to provide employment for several hundred people to this day. Rather than merely stating the need to maintain jobs for the area, as was often the case with industrial disputes in the 1980s, he was instrumental in making a sound economic argument for keeping the plant open.
He then switched over to the drinks industry and worked for Allied Distillers for a few years where he was “primarily focused on capital projects” before starting up his consultancy firm in 2002. His father is a special adviser to the company. The main focus is on project management, delivery, troubleshooting and training. Although he has no direct experience of working inside local authorities, Mr Clark pointed to a “broad spectrum” of experiences with both public and private sector clients and said the last four years have largely been spent working with borough councils in London.
That has involved delivering social housing programmes and he said he has been working “very much at the cutting edge of local authority delivery”, pointing to a £192 million Decent Homes programme aimed at upgrading social housing. It was delivered a number of years ahead of schedule and with a £20 million saving, he said. “That’s the type of success I want to replicate in the Shetland Isles, particularly at a time when finances are more constrained, there are more limits, and also from what I can see there’s been a bit of slippage, delay, perhaps indecision has crept in to the delivery of the programme.”
He is reluctant to be drawn in too much detail on the political situation here at this early stage – he is happy to be “coming in with a clean slate” where “nobody feels there’s any baggage from the past”. He does not necessarily see the absence of party politics from the council chamber as a bad thing; indeed, he hopes it can work to his advantage. “On the one hand, it’s a challenge [in that] it makes getting consensus a different process – that will mean working much more closely individually with the council members. I actually see it as a strong opportunity [to deliver] services the people of the community actually want, rather than what politicians are demanding because they’re following a party line.”
He does have his own political past of sorts, having stood as a candidate for the SNP in the Motherwell North ward in the 1992 general election against John Reid, who went on to become a New Labour cabinet bruiser. Although Dr Reid recorded a substantial majority of almost 19,000, Mr Clark did manage to increase the nationalists’ vote by 6.3 per cent to 20.3 per cent. But he says he has not been involved in party politics for well over a decade and is more interested in the type of non-partisan issues that are important to Shetlanders.
“I’m coming in to be a servant of the local community and I want to focus on the issues that people locally feel are the important issues. We know we’re in a time of crisis financially – I actually see that as giving the Shetland Isles the opportunity to capitalise on its position of strength. While other councils are struggling with their debts, this is actually an opportunity to capitalise on the wealth that has been accumulated over the decades [and develop] a vision for the future delivered from a position of political strength rather than weakness and fear.”
There are those who feel the council’s PR operation has some room for improvement and Mr Clark stressed the importance of developing a strong relationship with the local media. “I think it’s more important that you work in partnership with one another than end up being adversaries,” he said. “It’s a small community where people have a very real interest in what’s going on [and] that it gets followed and reported closely. The media is serving a very real social need and it’s better all round if the information they are getting is accurate and open. I tend to take the position that unless I’ve got a very good reason for keeping something confidential, such as financial security for a company, I will tend to be very open with the information I give.”
One of his first tasks is likely to be to undertake negotiations with the oil industry to try and secure a better deal for Shetland. The target income from harbour dues at Sullom Voe is £4 million but last year the council received barely half that at a time of declining throughput at the terminal and moves have been put in place for the council and charitable trust to get together with industry chiefs later this year.
Mr Clark said he feels the accumulated oil wealth gives the community a good base from which to generate economic activity. He added: “What’s been built up gives Shetland a very unique position at the moment. I’m quite keen to ensure that at a time when economic resources are fairly scarce, governments seeking to maximise their revenues, I want to make sure that doesn’t happen at the expense of Shetland having its wealth taken away from it. Let’s use it so that we’re one of the most successful councils in building economic success as the country starts to come out of recession, and try to cultivate a go-getter, entrepreneurial spirit for the isles that really does help lead the way in Scotland’s economy recovery.”