A Lerwick councillor has launched a staunch defence of the SIC’s reputation following an endless stream of public criticism in recent months, arguing that one of its biggest shortcomings is explaining what it does to the people of Shetland.
Speaking during Monday evening’s meeting of Lerwick Community Council – at which “public unrest” and “the perception that the council is failing” was discussed – Allan Wishart said that while he understood the reasons why people were angry, the SIC had to do a much better job of keeping the public properly in the picture.
The last six months have seen almost unprecedented anger at a series of high profile fallouts between council officials and members, most notably the spectacular and highly damaging breakdown in relations between chief executive David Clark and Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills.
Mr Wishart rejected the notion that the council was “failing”, principally because it was continuing to provide a high standard of public services to the community. He gave a “conservative” estimate that between them, the council and Shetland Charitable Trust had disbursed somewhere in the region of £2.5 billion over the past three decades and failed investments made up a tiny proportion, less than one per cent, of that. “The overwhelming majority has been spent for the evident benefit of the Shetland people,” he said.
A major target of criticism has been Shetland Development Trust, now back under council control as the economic development unit, over a string of investments gone bad – including Judane, SSG Seafoods, a string of salmon farms, Smyril Line and No Catch.
Mr Wishart countered that by saying a host of other investments had been hugely successful in generating employment and argued that the SIC’s biggest problem was a chronic lack of public relations nous. In the case of knitwear firm Judane, to whom the council recently wrote off £400,000 in unpaid loans, he said ongoing legal matters were still to be tied up but “there’s a lot more to be told and it will be told”.
“Press statements are long and complicated and don’t hit the mark,” he said. “I just think we have lessons to learn in how we deal with the press and the statements we write, and to make them more readable.”
His fellow Lerwick North member and Judane adviser Caroline Miller was also present in the council chamber, along with fellow town councillors Gussie Angus, Jim Henry and Cecil Smith, to hear some stinging criticism from community councillor Kathy Greaves.
Mrs Greaves, who stood unsuccessfully for the Lerwick North ward in the 2007 elections, staged a protest at the Market Cross regarding the crisis at Lerwick Town Hall shortly before Christmas and she read out a series of comments from members of the public she had spoken to that day.
The losses on two loans to Judane were “the last straw” for many people, she said, and some islanders felt the council was treating public cash as “monopoly money”. Others had suggested individuals involved with companies which fail to repay money to the public purse should be treated in the same way as people who fail to pay their council tax and be compelled to do so.
Mrs Greaves told the five councillors present that they “can’t make it all look rosy”, urged them not to ignore public concern and “sort yourselves out”. “There are a whole lot of things that people are not happy with,” she said.
But services committee chairman Mr Angus also rejected the notion that the council was “failing” by pointing to the high quality of services being provided in terms of education, social care, children’s services, ferries and housing – the latter which “I would put to you is probably the best in Scotland”. He said recent weeks had also highlighted the quality of the gritting service being provided by the roads department.
Mr Angus, one of six councillors who has called for an investigation into a host of allegations of misconduct against Mr Clark, said he was “not trying to pretend [the council] doesn’t have issues to be addressed”. He accepted there had been some “spectacular losses” in a number of high-profile investments, but stressed that the council got involved in unsecured loan schemes and put money into companies and ventures “because nobody else would” and “a surprising number did succeed”.
Mr Wishart said he thought every councillor was “painfully aware” of public perceptions and he hoped the involvement of Audit Scotland, which should be arriving in the isles to investigate how the council is being run before the winter is out, would help bring certain issues to a head.