SIC convener Sandy Cluness has vowed to work with councillors and officials to implement the recommendations of Monday’s deeply critical report from the Accounts Commission and says he has no intention of standing down before the next election.
The report identifies an absence of clear, decisive and consistent leadership and also described the council’s approach to governance as “haphazard”, but it does not apportion blame to any individual councillors, though Mr Cluness said he accepted any criticism which comes his way for the events of the past year.
Mr Cluness said the SIC, which legally has up to three months to deliver a formal response, took the report’s findings “very seriously”. A meeting of all 22 councillors is to be held, in public, to discuss a way forward “in early course”, he said, and he hopes the report will be a “catalyst for change” towards more harmonious relations within the SIC.
“I accept my own position, particularly in relation to what happened with the previous chief executive,” he said. It’s also an overall criticism of how we operate this council. I accept my share of whatever criticism is coming my way.
“Having just been provided with a copy of the report earlier today, it’s too early to make a detailed response to the points raised. However, I would say at this stage that it’s not likely the council would dispute any of the findings and would be minded to accept them. We will be having further dialogue with the commission and Audit Scotland over the next few weeks.
“Although we have been through a turbulent period, culminating in this report, I would like to reassure the public of Shetland today that the council has been working very hard since the hearing to put in place the building blocks for improvement.
“We are facing a huge challenge to deliver savings across the council and to respond effectively to today’s findings. However, I’m confident that if we all get behind the improvement plan that is developing, we will succeed in restoring confidence in the council as a well-run organisation that’s committed to delivering excellent services for the people of Shetland.”
Recently-installed chief executive Alistair Buchan said he endorsed Mr Cluness’ views, adding that the report covered “many of the areas which I had also seen as important and have already been working on”.
Mr Buchan has a number of ideas in mind to address the string of high-profile issues raised, but feels unable to be more specific until he has talked those ideas over with councillors. He is hopeful of forming a consensus around an “improvement plan” as soon as possible, and members will be meeting sometime in the coming weeks to discuss ways forward.
“We’ll be doing this as rapidly as we can,” Mr Buchan said. “It’s in nobody’s interest to have a delay, but we’re desperately keen to avoid going off half-cock and doing anything counterproductive that undermines the plan before it gets a chance to fly.
“It is critical that we now have some time and space to allow a considered and balanced response to the detail of the report to ensure that the whole council can make their contribution, and that we all work together professionally to deliver the right improvements.”
Meanwhile, Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills said he was disappointed that the report appeared to blame all 22 councillors for a lack of leadership at the top of the council and objected to the “insinuation” that any members had breached the code of conduct which councillors have to abide by. Dr Wills and fellow councillors Gary Robinson and Caroline Miller were cleared of breaches earlier this year.
Dr Wills said: “It is apportioning collective blame for the leadership to all councillors including those of us, and we are several, who have pointed out for several years the error of the leadership’s ways. It’s rather unfair. I’m certainly not taking responsibility for mistakes, nor am I going to accept a vow of silence because some man in Edinburgh says we should stop talking about council business to the media.”
He said it was unfortunate the Accounts Commission had not looked at the agreement between the council and former chief executive David Clark, who was awarded a £285,000 payoff to leave the SIC in February. Dr Wills and other councillors repeatedly clashed with Mr Clark during his nine-month tenure.
But Dr Wills – who earlier this summer agreed to bury the hatchet with Mr Cluness having previously called for him to resign on several occasions – said he did accept it was “more important to move on and reorganise the council and its finances” given the potentially savage extent of cuts to be imposed in the coming years.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said there were “serious and tough” changes to be made within the council and called for “decisive action” to implement the report’s recommendations.
“Everyone wants the council to be stable and successful,” he said. “I will work constructively with elected members, the new chief executive and his team for the benefit of the people of these islands.”