A councillor is calling for a “radical rethink” of ferry services across the isles, looking at the possible privatisation of some routes. He has even suggested that ferries should stop running in and out of the North Isles at the end of each working day.
South Mainland member Allison Duncan made his remarks during Monday’s audit and scrutiny committee meeting in reaction to a report which showed the council’s spending on staff overtime has increased by almost £400,000 in the past year. The overtime bill for ferry crews alone was £729,981, which Mr Duncan described as a “horrendous amount of money”.
The total overtime bill of £2.85 million in 2009/10 was a substantial increase on the £2.47 million outlay in 2008/9. It was acknowledged that most of the increase was due to higher wages and related changes as part of the single status agreement to alter many workers’ terms and conditions.
“Something needs to give. I’m sorry to say it, but this has to be reduced,” said Mr Duncan, continuing his long-held theme of urging the council to start making drastic cutbacks on the day Prime Minister David Cameron gave a doom-laden speech suggesting that public spending cuts over the next five years will disrupt Britain’s “whole way of life”.
Mr Duncan went on to suggest that drastically reduced timetables “for the North Isles and other areas if necessary” would have to be looked at, along with introducing more flexible working hours. Unsurprisingly, his remarks raised the hackles of North Isles councillor Robert Henderson, who – tongue firmly implanted in cheek – retorted that maybe the council could try putting in a grind at the South Mainland at 5pm each day “to see how you’d get on”.
Yell and Unst have a “commuter culture”, Mr Henderson said, with many islanders travelling to the mainland for employment – including some Sullom Voe shift employees working until 8pm. The SIC is supposed to be trying to maintain rural communities, he continued, but introducing Mr Duncan’s proposals would “completely empty the isles”. “The minute ferry services go down is the day we need more homes on the mainland.”
He was backed by Lerwick North councillor Caroline Miller, who raised the prospect of “depopulation or island clearances”. “I would go further: how would councillor Duncan feel if central government said no flights before 9am?”
Referring to his idea of siphoning some ferry service provision off to the private sector, Mr Duncan gave the example of a ferry operator on the Pentland Firth route between Orkney and the Scottish mainland competing directly against government grants. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t be looking at the private sector to help cut our costs,” he said. Mr Henderson said he had no problem with that “as long as we get the level of service”.
Further suggestions from Mr Duncan included trying to encourage private sector involvement in the upkeep of the nine-hole Knab golf course and to ask amateur football teams to cough up some cash towards the overtime done by parks staff in the summer evenings.
After ferry workers, the next biggest overtime expenditure was on staff in the towage service with £347,322, a fall on the previous year. Workers in the roads department were given £341,056 in out-of-hours payments, an increase of nearly £100,000 on the previous year which has been put down largely to the hours put in to deal with unexpectedly large amount of snow in the winter months.
Councillors congratulated the building services department for trimming expenditure by £75,838 to £279,655 this year by introducing a cap on overtime. The environment department accounted for a further £191,325 on staff working out of hours at the landfill site, the energy recovery plant, burial grounds, cleaning the streets of Lerwick at weekends and collecting rubbish.
Other areas incurring a sizeable overtime bill include schools, with £168,130 mostly accounted for by the presence of janitors in 14 schools throughout the isles, and the community care department which spent £89,178 as staff worked extra hours to cover for vacancies.
In other areas, staff working overtime allowed the council to take in a substantial amount of income. Some £41,139 was spent on Islesburgh, but staging events like Shetland Folk Festival allowed the community centre to generate more than £20,500 in a single weekend.
Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills pointed out it was less than three per cent of the council’s total wage bill and “managers are doing something about it by introducing flexible working”.
North Isles member Laura Baisley agreed that while “some of these figures do look quite shocking”, there shouldn’t be an assumption that nothing is being done about it. “However, there is a culture of people supplementing their income by working overtime wherever possible,” she said, adding it was wrong for any local authority employee to view overtime as a “perk” of their job.