By NEIL RIDDELL
It was by far the most trying episode of his 10-year tenure at the head of Shetland Islands Council but, as he prepares to vacate his Town Hall office for the last time this afternoon, Morgan Goodlad has robustly defended himself over his part in the collapse of SSG Seafoods and hit out at the manner in which the public services ombudsman carried out the investigation into his role in the debacle.
Reflecting on his time in office, Mr Goodlad pointed to what he feels were his main successes over a decade in office, choosing primarily to flag up non-headline grabbing things like keeping the organisation within its financial and budgetary framework and maintaining the delivery of high quality services to the people of Shetland. He believes that when successor David Clark steps into the hot seat on Monday morning he will find in front of him a “strong base” from which to take the community forward.
“I think, over the time, I got what I lippened”
Mr Goodlad was censured for maladministration in 2007 for failing to declare an interest when advising Shetland Development Trust about making investments in SSG Seafoods, which was latterly chaired and part-owned by his brother Alastair Goodlad. The salmon farm consortium eventually sunk in 2004 at a cost of over £7 million in community funds, which Mr Goodlad said was “regrettable”, but he remains angry at what he perceives to be a lack of courtesy shown towards him by the ombudsman. He has voiced regret over the way some other investments were handled too.
He also drew attention to successful negotiations with the oil industry, securing work related to the Clair and Schiehallion oil fields to help maintain Sullom Voe Oil Terminal’s viability, something which caused him no end of sleepless nights. He is also pleased at having helped to restructure and restore tug company Shetland Towage to profitability. Latterly he is happy to have played a part in getting the single status pay negotiations to a stage where an agreement between the SIC and the unions was able to be signed this week.
Talking to The Shetland Times shortly before his departure, Mr Goodlad said his expectations for the job had been “pretty much realised”. “I think, over the time, I got what I lippened, came into the job clear-minded and without any feelings that this would be easy and I would be greatly popular.” He managed to retain the confidence of elected members throughout the 10 years and said he had “always had an excellent relationship with all councillors … when there has been disagreement that’s never been personal”. He paid glowing tribute to the quality of staff at all levels of the council (“probably the most satisfying bit of the job”) and expressed pride at having overseen the development of staff to the point where there is now “a completely new set of individuals at the top table”. He is also happy to have expanded the number of apprenticeships offered by the council and the ongoing graduate placement scheme which sees a dozen new graduates given a 12-month post every year.
“The man in the street, they will think I was personally responsible for losing £7 million”
He was appointed to the job back in October 1999, having been principal at the North Atlantic Fisheries College for five years, after councillors decided to put their faith in his business acumen as a former manager at multinational conglomerate Unilever, where he had worked in management roles in Holland, Korea, Turkey and Taiwan. Aged 49 at the time of his appointment, Mr Goodlad’s clear interest and experience in the sphere of economic development was to be a defining part of his legacy.
But he is also very aware that many people will remember his involvement in the controversies – most notably SSG Seafoods and its fallout, Smyril Line and the Bressay Bridge fiasco – which took up acres of newsprint in the middle of this decade. His defence, in the case of SSG Seafoods, is that his close personal involvement only took place at a very early stage of proceedings, although he does accept that it created a huge perception problem: if you ask “the man in the street, they will think I was personally responsible for losing £7 million by investing it into SSG. That’s unfortunate, it goes with the territory of doing the job for a number of years”.
The decision to plough large amounts of money into the company in a last-ditch attempt to rescue it was, in hindsight, “regrettable” but “although nobody ever seems to believe me, I didn’t actually have involvement in that decision-making at the late stage”. The only mistake he made, Mr Goodlad insists, was that “I didn’t put down on a bit of paper, which everybody knew, that Alastair Goodlad was my brother”, the oversight which led to his censure for maladministration. He argued that in fact all he did was to save the charitable trust’s property company SLAP £1 million by transferring debt to the development trust. Thereafter, he insists, the only advice he provided to the development trust was an email to a council worker regarding “how to structure a shareholding should the development trust want to take a shareholding”, after which it did become the majority shareholder in SSG Seafoods.
“I didn’t put down on a bit of paper, which everybody knew, that Alastair Goodlad was my brother”
But he is hugely critical of the way the ombudsman conducted the investigation following a complaint from former SIC worker Michael Peterson: “They never actually picked up the phone, never questioned me, made decisions on whatever evidence they couldn’t find in this case and fired away their conclusions without another thought. At the time of that decision, the only bit in the very early days on the moving of that £1 million from SLAP, my brother wasn’t actually a shareholder of this company, I certainly had never been aware at that particular time that he was involved in this company. Now of course I got ridiculed ever since … for everybody else kent but Morgan Goodlad kent. But I had to put up with it, knowing myself that my own integrity was absolutely intact, and that 22 elected councillors and the ones before it were all 100 per cent understanding of what this was about.”
The complainer said after the ruling that the ombudsman’s failure to investigate Mr Goodlad’s wider role in SSG was “incomprehensible”, but Mr Goodlad – who had earlier sacked Mr Peterson from his employment in the council – refuses to be drawn on those remarks. “I wouldn’t make any comment regarding Michael Peterson or any of his opinions. Any member of this community is open to make complaints to whatever body they feel fit, and Michael Peterson seems to know them all very well.”
“They [the ombudsman] never actually picked up the phone, never questioned me”
What he did take from SSG was a lesson which highlighted the difficulty of investing in local industry: “You needed very, very big pockets to see something like that through.” It was indisputably “a bad thing” that millions were lost along with community influence over a major section of its private sector and pouring funds in at a late stage was “maybe not the best judgement” by the development trust. At that time, after its constitution was altered from having 22 councillors to just four along with four independents, he now agrees that it began acting too secretly. “Yes, I think they were, and secretly of me and independently of me as well.” But he has no wider regrets about reshaping economic development and believes one of his key achievements was helping halt a situation where SLAP held a “very big, very risky” portfolio of investments, since when it has made “significant profits”. “[That is] one of the things that I think is the beneficiary of some of the changes I made back then.”
Another controversial episode was the decision to invest £4.2 million in Faroese shipping company Smyril Line, which he defends as having “brought considerable benefit to this community” for the years in which passenger ferry the Norröna was stopping off at Lerwick. He maintains that it was an idea which fitted the intention to try and support tourism and that, while there is anger in some quarters, he has had feedback from many people who felt it was a great pity and a loss to Shetland that the company decided to abandon Lerwick as a destination. “We would definitely have needed more money [but] that was difficult politically here, I think more understanding from the community at the time would have helped that. It was £4.2 million that is still there, and I think there is an opportunity and a possibility that the ship will come back. We do love in Shetland good failures, of course, and I am disappointed that that one didn’t succeed.”
Trying to follow what had been established policy in successive councils by looking to build a £19 million bridge to Bressay also led Mr Goodlad into divisive territory as the SIC and Lerwick Port Authority found themselves at loggerheads. The fiasco cost £2 million of public money spent on the project before it was aborted in the wake of a legal ruling in favour of the LPA, while £4 million of outward investment was also lost and an insurance claim from the port authority for losses incurred when it had to postpone dredging Lerwick Harbour could yet cost the council a further £5 million.
“I never, ever considered stepping down from the position”
Mr Goodlad – who was involved in several meetings with then LPA chief executive Allan Wishart over the dispute – accepts that it was an episode which reflected extremely badly on Shetland’s reputation. “[It is] a great pity that there could not have been an accommodation between the two bodies and I personally [am] disappointed not to see a bridge across the north mooth, but a number of folk have different views on that. [There was] a lot of liaison between the bodies in terms of developing this bridge … both parties were clearly hell bent on meeting what they saw was in their best interests – unfortunately that two issues didn’t bridge, and I think it is clearly regrettable.”
Could he understand public anger that no one appears to have apportioned or accepted any blame for what went wrong and the ensuing loss of community funds? “Had the action to try and save the bridge not been taken at that time, that money would have been lost and very severe questions would have had to be asked about why was this action not defended to save that expenditure. As it was, action was taken and the court ruled the way they ruled, so that was lost anyway. I can’t claim in any way that that money was a good investment, clearly if there’s not going to be a bridge … I think it’s a great pity – other solutions, the tunnel, higher bridge, all of that was outside our financial ability to deliver and still is. [But] there’s no council officer involved in that process that didn’t carry through to the best of their ability council policy.”
Mr Goodlad continues to be stung by criticism he received in this newspaper, particularly in the wake of him being censured by the ombudsman. “Are we going to go on and on about this? Are you going to rake all this out as my legacy?” he barked following a series of questions about the SSG affair during last week’s discussion.
But although he is understood to be privately quite scathing about the Shetland press, he is adamant that there was no breakdown in communication, as had been suggested in these columns at the time of his resignation announcement back in February. He said: “Although I noticed [it] reported in your paper that I was non-communicative and did not answer your phone calls, didn’t respond, I was never conscious of not being open or available to the media. The difficult questions – maybe sometimes you’re scared to ask them.”
But although two years ago he made it known that he was taking legal advice over a spate of critical letters in The Shetland Times and elsewhere, he chose not to respond directly in a public forum because he did not want to “parochialise” or “personalise” political debate. “I’ve judged never to respond in writing, Sounding Offs, letters to the paper. I will confess occasionally on a Sunday afternoon I write a letter and then on Monday morning throw him in the bin. [In] my position, it’s difficult to start running your own campaigns … even if it’s in defence of yourself. That would just prolong debate, personalise issues and become focus[ed] on your personality.”
“I think it’s very good that we keep on punishing ourselves regarding we have to be careful with our funds, but we have over the years”
Did he ever consider resigning in the wake of the flak he was attracting back in 2007, or at any other stage of his tenure? “Never, not at any stage. I won’t say it was a swimming, wonderful experience. I found certainly that there was a pressure, obviously the backing of the councillors [who were] comfortable with my own integrity [helped] … I never, ever considered stepping down from the position.”
Early in his time in office he was quoted in the national media – inaccurately, he insists – as admitting that the council could afford to shed as much as 500 jobs. He said the figure was calculated by the unions at a time when he was seeking to drive through £6 million in efficiency savings but shedding that number of jobs was never the intention. In the event there were some voluntary redundancies and early retirements but Mr Goodlad does not share the view of those who say the council is a bloated organisation, and he stresses just how vulnerable the community would be with an emasculated public sector.
“It is a well-resourced organisation in amount of employees compared to other local authorities – there are more employees per head by a long way. But this council does an awful lot more than other local authorities in providing services. In return for that it has a very dominant effect on the economy here. I would never say that the council employs a lot of folk needlessly, not at all. If you came in with a totally ruthless private sector mentality I think you could with the council’s approval reduce significantly the amount of employees, but the result of that would be to reduce considerably council services. I don’t think this community would accept that – times that we’ve tried to close a school, restrict a ferry service, reduce home care services – you can see elements of the community making their opinions felt on that.”
There is a commonly-held view, he accepts, that the council is lavishly frittering away its oil reserves without a care for tomorrow but he points out that people were bandying around terms like “financial time bomb” when he took over, and even 10 years before that. Although the council is still trying to wean itself off using its oil reserves for revenue spending, he insists that while there is pressure on the budget, financial strategies are not being broken. “I think it’s very good that we keep on punishing ourselves regarding being careful with our funds, but we have over the years – we’ve never broken our financial strategies, in spite of a perception that we’re just milking our funds and running down our reserves. Provided that the council, and you, keep focusing on our funds sustainably, I’m sure we won’t make the kind of decisions to burst the bank and spend it all – that’s certainly been the case in the past 10 years.”
His own experience of the difficulties inherent in trying to stimulate economic activity leave him under no illusions that the public sector is likely to remain far and away the leading player in the local economy in the coming decades. He is of the opinion that it is a “very difficult” economy to grow outside traditional industries involving “growing or catching” and, in any event, feels the EU’s state aid rules have moved the goalposts in terms of what the SIC can and cannot do with its oil reserves. He is one of a growing number who foresee an increasing pattern of using the reserves to invest in infrastructure rather than industry. But he is confident that there is some scope for growing the isles’ tourism sector and is pleased that transport partnership ZetTrans is continuing to monitor possible avenues in that field.
“I think the council will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future, provided that it does so by continuing to use our reserves in a sustainable fashion, I don’t see too much difficulties in that [and] I think it’s right that scrutiny remains on that. I think we have to keep on trying to add value – the whole area of tourism is an opportunity. To exploit that we need to improve our product offering, [which] we’re doing. I think Mareel’s a big contribution to that, the museum has been [and] we need more but we need to de-bottleneck transportation and that’s definitely going to need our involvement as we tried to do in the past.”
For his own part, Mr Goodlad confesses to having continued in the post for far longer than he intended. Indeed, he had said publicly some time ago that his intention was to stand down around the time of, or shortly after, the election of the current breed of councillors back in May 2007. He decided not to ask for an early retirement package from the SIC but as to the future, he is gleeful in refusing to divulge his plans.
He said: “I’m not telling you. You’re the last folk I’m going to tell. None of your business. I’ll drift away into the sunset and hopefully appear on the sports pages of The Shetland Times – that’s the only place I like being. I’m not entirely done yet, I am newly 59, I’ve no regrets about making the decision to leave, I think it’s the right time. Anything I do will be my business and my business alone – I’ve had nine and a half years of being accountable; when I restore to being a civilian next week I don’t think I have to answer questions about my private life, not that you’ve ever asked any. Shetland’s a terrific environment to do things, there’s lots of things to do, lots of ideas, I’ll just follow through what I feel at the time.”