Councillors need to get their “act together” and start making tough decisions, according to Shetland South member Allison Duncan after Audit Scotland’s latest ear-bashing report on the local authority’s plethora of shortcomings.
In its 2008/9 report, the auditors flagged up the SIC having spent £5.54 million on the new Anderson High School project without having anything to show for it as a source of particular concern.
It also took the council to task for its budget-setting process with “incremental” budgets and savings identified “by top slicing without a review of the overall priorities and spending needs of the council”.
Audit Scotland criticised the council for failing to abandon its habit of raiding oil reserves to cover its annual revenue spending. It said there was a serious risk that spending the funds on general running costs means the target balance of keeping the reserves at a floor of £250 million “may not be achieved and maintained”.
Speaking during Wednesday’s meeting of the audit and scrutiny committee, Mr Duncan said it was a “very critical report” which showed it was “time we get our act together”. “We have spent £5.54 million on the AHS without any work started on site. [The report notes] a failure to curtail spending – the buck stops with us councillors there.”
Unusually, the report also expressed concern over the breakdown in the quality of working relationships between officials and members following the recent trouble at Lerwick Town Hall between councillors and new chief executive David Clark.
It stated: “At the time of writing this report we have become aware of some high profile relationship issues involving the new chief executive and members. There is a risk that these issues will adversely impact on the council’s ability to deliver its objectives.”
Mr Duncan said he felt SIC convener Sandy Cluness had missed a golden opportunity to draw a line under recent events by refusing councillor Cecil Smith’s request to hold an special meeting on the future of assistant chief executive Willie Shannon and called on him to “rescind that decision” and call a meeting “as quickly as possible”.
He accepted the auditors’ suggestion that the breakdown in relationships could have a knock-on impact on the services the SIC has to deliver. “That is the case, unfortunately. We still don’t have a new head of asset strategy. We are there as policy-makers and to govern. Presently this is extremely difficult. This is certainly the case with all the shenanigans going on at the Town Hall.”
Mr Duncan said he was at times “embarrassed” to have to go outwith Shetland to represent the community because of the sort of questions being asked by people on the Scottish mainland, adding: “The public here are up in arms, they are very angry.”
While she attempted to quieten down Mr Duncan because she “cannot accept” criticism of fellow councillors, committee chairwoman Florence Grains said she felt it had been a “very accurate report” from Audit Scotland.
Caroline Miller agreed that councillors had to “face up to tough times ahead”, adding her main priority would be to see “some sort of financial committee” put in place to improve the way the council is managed.
Audit Scotland has once again given a “qualified opinion” of the SIC’s 2008/9 accounts because of its continuing inability to group its accounts with those of Shetland Charitable Trust. Councillors have agreed in principle to do so, but the same group of people voted against the move as trustees of the charitable trust.
Head of finance Graham Johnston sees the auditors as having a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the way the two bodies interact with one another. The council last month made its position – that it has done everything it can towards grouping the accounts – clear to the auditors and Mr Johnston is hopeful that there “may be a breakthrough” when Audit Scotland next responds.