A tough job
At a time when Tory ministers and their Liberal Democrat minions are gleefully waving axes in every government department, it would be reassuring to know that we had a confident, competent local authority in place, ready to guide us through the difficult times ahead.
We don’t though, of course.
At this moment of national economic uncertainty, when we are faced for the first time in decades with real threats to what we like to call “our way of life”, it would provide some peace of mind to know that there were good, reliable people in the council chamber, with the imagination and determination necessary to cope with an uncertain future.
In the wake of a report by the Accounts Commission, which described Shetland Islands Council as seriously lacking in leadership, vision, strategic direction, financial management and accountability, it would be easy to feel concerned. Even, perhaps, a little let down. After all, local politics may not be an easy job, but one might have imagined that it would be hard to be quite this poor at it.
Predictably, no one was willing to resign over the commission’s findings. For the convenor, Sandy Cluness, criticism has become such a regular occurrence that it must now seem like just another part of the job. When prompted, he did make some appropriate sounding noises, saying that the council would “take on board” what the commission had said, and that they would “implement changes” and “move forward in a constructive way”, or some other equally clichéd and unconvincing words. But no one now is likely to take his word for it.
The council’s new chief executive Alistair Buchan has a tough job on his hands. Knocking an organisation like the SIC into shape is not going to be easy, particularly when elements within it have shown themselves so resistant to change in the past. He has suggested that he will take his time before making the necessary decisions, and that is certainly no bad thing. It suggests, I hope, that he is thinking. And thinking is generally to be applauded. Councillors, take note!
Applause is also due (only a little reluctantly) to the lord lieutenant, John Scott, one of the charitable trust’s two arbitrary non-councillor trustees. Last week, Mr Scott circulated a proposal for a fairly radical, if somewhat complicated, overhaul of the trust, including a majority of members being directly elected. His proposal will hopefully be discussed at a meeting next week, and while it may not lead to immediate changes it does at least keep the subject of reform on the table, which is where it must remain until satisfactory changes are made.
I have argued before that directly electing trustees is not necessarily the best way to ensure good governance of the charitable trust (to understand my reasons, please see the Town Hall). Trusts, on the whole, tend to appoint their members, aiming to bring as broad a range of knowledge and experience as possible to the table; and this is quite understandable. Appointments are also more to the taste of the charities regulator OSCR, which has been calling for reform for some time now, and which is not very keen on the idea of elections at all.
But on this particular subject I have changed my mind. The charitable trust in Shetland plays such a hugely significant role – affecting the lives of virtually everyone, in one way or another – that accountability must be at the heart of the organisation. And the best, perhaps the only way to ensure accountability is for the public to have the opportunity to elect the majority of trustees directly. Elections may not result in the most able candidates winning (again, see the Town Hall) but they will result in trustees who can be voted out again in a few years’ time. They will also bring us a charitable trust that is truly independent of the council , which is long overdue.
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All over Britain today there are communities who are considering, or who have already created, a local currency. The idea may seem far-fetched, but in fact it is surprisingly simple and entirely workable, particularly in a place like Shetland, with clearly-defined geographical boundaries. And as Steven Coutts shows (page 14), it could offer very real benefits for the islands’ economy. Perhaps the time has come for the Shetland pound . . .