Shetland Islands Council’s new chief executive Alistair Buchan hopes to instil a culture of “prudence”, “maximum efficiency” and “consensus” into the organisation over the next two-and-a-half years.
The 46-year-old, who was appointed on an interim basis on secondment from neighbouring Orkney Islands Council, began his tenure this week and in an interview with local media outlets this morning he also vowed to work to improve relations between elected members and senior officials following what has been a torrid year for the local authority.
His talk of austerity comes on the day that Scotland’s finance secretary, John Swinney, issued an appeal to islanders to come forward with ideas about how to cope with reduced levels of public spending as the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s comprehensive spending review, to be published in October, looms on the horizon.
Shortly before their summer recess, SIC members were warned by finance chief Graham Johnston of the need for a “cultural change” to tackle a “daunting” budget shortfall of up to £17 million next year and Mr Buchan is under no illusions about the financial constraints ahead.
“Clearly as we move into very challenging times financially, there will be a need for a greater level of prudence than in the past,” Mr Buchan said. “There’s an obligation on everyone in the public sector to get the maximum efficiency that we can going forward. Perhaps with the background I have in Orkney that’s something I can help with.”
Alongside that, the major initial challenge facing Mr Buchan will be in responding to the findings of the Accounts Commission hearing into the SIC. It is expected to publish a report later this month. The hearing, which took place in late June, came after 12 months of acrimony between some councillors and members of staff which culminated in the departure of Mr Buchan’s predecessor David Clark in February.
Mr Buchan said: “The commission was keen to explore the issue of member/officer relations. I’m speaking to all of them about that, how it’s going, whether we need further systems in place to support that relationship. The members here will always have primacy; they’re the people that the community elect, but in an effective organisation the members and the senior officers need to work together.
“I have met no-one, at member level or officer level, yet who hasn’t been wholly committed to this community and wanting to do the right thing for it. Differences come in about how you do that [and I want to] shift the focus … on to the policy options for Shetland’s future. What I’m desperately keen to achieve is the maximum possible level of consensus, while acknowledging that I operate within a political environment.”
Mr Buchan is keeping his cards close to his chest at this stage about ideas he has for reforming the organisation until he has talked with councillors and senior officials. But he has already established that members are keen to have a debate over addressing what some see as the unwieldy structure of council committees, while he has numerous other ideas for making the organisation run more smoothly.
“I’ve every intention of hitting the ground running, and making early inroads into some of the challenges that we have here. I’m very clear that this is not Orkney, it’s a very different community with its own history, culture and community dynamics that have to be respected, and I will do that.”
Is there a sense of trepidation about the task in front of him? “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have a certain level of apprehension. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to get this right – I’m only here to do the best I can for Shetland. Developing a thick skin is something I’ve worked at for 20-odd years in senior jobs. It’s a responsible job, you’re well rewarded for it and you take the knocks, you expect them.”
Mr Buchan is moving his wife and their 12-year-old daughter (the couple also have a 21-year-old son) to Shetland with him and says they are extremely keen integrate into the community, which he has viewed from afar as an extremely ambitious and generous one.
“You just have to look at Shetland’s record of charity-giving, for example, to recognise that there’s a huge reservoir of goodwill in this community that can be tapped even further to take forward the cause of public services, and that’s something I’m very interested in exploring.”
He accepts there may be occasions when, given that he intends to return to Orkney Islands Council once his stint here is over, he has to step back to avoid any conflict of interest – for instance, the two local authorities have at times been competitors in striving to attract oil business – and wants to allay any concerns that members of the public may have.
“I was already amused to hear one story that’s circulating that I’m up here to steal some of Shetland’s money. I’m a local government professional, I wouldn’t countenance for one moment silly games like that. You only have to go around some of our social services to look at some of the heartbreaking situations that we’re having to deal with in local government these days to see this is a serious business we’re engaged in. I wouldn’t contemplate for one minute getting involved in any daft politics that would embarrass either Orkney or Shetland in any way.”
Meanwhile, Mr Swinney is asking people in Shetland to contact the government via its website, at www.scotland.gov.uk/publicspending, to give their views on how the nation can cope with reduced public spending following the publication of an independent budget review.