SIC chief executive David Clark is to press the case for government funding to help alleviate the isles’ housing shortage at a Scotland-wide emergency jobs summit to address unemployment next Monday.
The meeting, being attended by ministers from the Scottish and UK governments as well as the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI), will take place in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s poorest areas.
Mr Clark said he would be making it “very clear” that the issue of unemployment in Shetland was one whose root causes were very different from problems on the Scottish mainland. Paramount to filling posts and creating jobs, he said, were housing and good communication technology.
The SIC hopes to build £20 million-worth of housing in the next five years, but received a major blow in December when it lost out on a share of £24 million designated to provide rental homes across the country. It had applied for £4.3 million in funding.
Mr Clark said at the time the decision by housing minister Alex Neil, apparently with the backing of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) because of the size of the SIC’s housing debt, was “ridiculous” and immediately sought a meeting with Mr Neil. At a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Clark said it was “quite disappointing” that a response to that request had still not been forthcoming.
Since he took up the post, the council has put in place an ambitious scheme to improve broadband internet provision in the isles, spending £1 million to connect to a Faroese fibre optic cable beached at Maywick to the isles’ network and looking into the creation of a council-backed Shetland Telecom operation.
Mr Clark will meet secretary of state for Scotland Jim Murphy on 28th January to press the case for outside help to fund the council’s plans to improve broadband and said Mr Murphy had so far been “very supportive” of what the council is trying to do in their discussions to date. “Who is going to come here and set up a new business if they can’t get decent broadband?” he said.
Meanwhile, the council has begun its search for candidates to fill a new post designed to take charge of the council’s £100 million, five-year capital programme, with candidates being sought internally only at this stage.
And the Accounts Commission has said it will let the council know its timetable and agenda for coming in to examine how the SIC is being governed by the middle of this month. Mr Clark said the council wanted to “try and get better” rather than be “defensive and negative” when faced with criticism, following a period of almost unprecedented turmoil over the past six months.
Auditors have spent several years criticising the council for dipping into its reserves at an unsustainable rate, but Mr Clark said he felt reserves built up by the SIC through payments from the oil industry had nothing to do with them. He believes the council has made good progress in reining in its spending and said it would be important to tackle perceptions to the contrary.
“Our reserves are none of their business. If this council wants to spend all its reserves then that is its business to do so. The SIC has chosen to try and have a base of £250 million and I don’t want to make promises, but it’s looking likely the reserves are going to finish the year higher than when it started.”