Shetland Islands Council’s new chief executive has passed his first test with flying colours after delivering his salvage plan to haul the crippled local authority off the rocks.
Alistair Buchan’s initial ideas for refloating and rebuilding the rudderless hulk were greeted with unanimous approval by grateful councillors in the Town Hall today, so much so that when convener Sandy Cluness backed the report his arch-enemy Jonathan Wills jumped in to second him, offering a symbol of hope that the feuding of the past year is over – at least for now.
There was almost a palpable evaporation of the lingering tension and bad blood in the chamber as members recognised that a safe pair of hands was taking the wheel. Mr Cluness twice said what a relief it was to have a new chief by his side, his pleasure perhaps heightened by the absence of councillor Allison Duncan who had publicly called for the convener’s head last week.
In his short five weeks in the job the seconded Orkney chief executive has wasted little time, consulting his new colleagues and contacts elsewhere in local government to agree methods for patching the gaping holes identified by the Accounts Commission before setting an overhauled council off on a steadier course.
Among the changes to come are a completely new committee system and improved decision-making process; an overhaul of top management; clearly defined roles for officials and elected members; council jobs devolved to rural areas and the setting up of a council PR office. It will involve wide-ranging changes to people’s jobs and the way the council conducts its business.
At the end of his assured first performance in public the new chief executive secured councillors’ agreement that his improvement plan should be the top corporate priority for the next 12 months.
The council has to respond formally to the criticisms of the Accounts Commission within three months.
Mr Buchan revealed that there was an absence of procedures, structures and ways of corporate working which he said should have been in place many years ago. As well as beefing-up what he called the “corporate centre” and altering the senior management structure he said he even needed to put in place basic systems for day-to-day business in his office.
While councillors were putting their best foot forward today for their new chief – several even wore fresh outfits for the new era – Mr Buchan told them urgent work was needed to improve relations between members and officials, which has been another battleground in recent months. Marking out their respective roles and responsibilities should, he hopes, remove “unnecessary tensions”.
Perhaps the most popular idea among members is finally to take action to stem the centralisation of council jobs in Lerwick, the need having been increased in recent times due to the cost of travel, the pressure on commuter ferries and the pressing need to keep remote and fragile communities alive.
Mr Buchan said there was a need to “get on with it seriously”. While shying away from “divisive” actions, like forcing staff and departments to relocate to rural parts, he envisages an “organic and pragmatic” approach, capitalising on the desires of some council staff not to have to commute to Lerwick and also making the most of opportunities to modernise and make council operations more efficient as and when jobs fall vacant.
Councillor Rick Nickerson was one of those who welcomed the commitment, pointing out that Sumburgh Airport owners HIAL had a whole floor of the terminal building empty which could be used for offices.
On the question of cutting jobs to make efficiency savings in the bloated local authority, Mr Buchan revealed that he favours reduction “by voluntary means whenever possible” as well as careful management of vacancies.
An urgent review is being done into the unpopular committee structure put in place during Morgan Goodlad’s reign as chief executive and improving the “underlying systems and processes” which Mr Buchan believes are crucial to success. A new structure will be in place by June next year and is expected to include the revival of some of the old committees dedicated solely to issues such as education and social care.
One innovative idea which could help fill the policy vacuum resulting from the absence of party politics in an independent council is to hold regular members’ informal seminars where the councillors receive briefings from Mr Buchan and others and learn about forthcoming issues, allowing them to share their views and perhaps seek common ground before the issues hit the agendas of committees.
Members agreed straight away to Mr Buchan’s call for an informal sounding board of seven councillors to be formed to assist and advise him, Mr Cluness and vice-convener Josie Simpson. One member from each of the seven wards was nominated by colleagues. For Lerwick South both Cecil Smith and Jonathan Wills were put forward. A secret ballot saw Mr Smith romp home by 15 votes to three.
Mr Buchan won councillors’ acceptance of the need for a communications office to be established to manage and improve the council’s, and Shetland’s, image. Attempts by previous councils to appoint a press officer were howled down every time the issue was raised for at least 30 years, as veteran member Florence Grains recalled.
Dr Wills, as a former journalist, said he had always wanted to speak to the organ-grinder, not his monkey, and warned that councillors should not try to hide behind their PR people.
On the major issue of sticking to budgets, one in which the council has proven woefully wayward, Mr Buchan wants to bide his time until the end of the year before deciding how to act. By that time the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government cuts will have become clear and how they will percolate down into cuts from the Scottish government.
It appears the council’s own internal cost-cutting drive has become becalmed in recent months with little progress made in finding the £9.9 million of spending cuts needed for 2010/11. After four months only £1.4 million had been found, much to Alastair Cooper’s alarm.
Mr Buchan has indicated he wants there to be incentives for staff to make efficiency savings, rather than simply demanding cutbacks, as has been the case. Staff are about to find out a lot more about his plans after he won councillors agreement to start switching them about, as a matter of urgency, to work in areas of the council that are in most need of attention. The unions will be consulted.
At the start of his presentation he took the time to express his admiration for the council’s senior staff, some of whom he said would be outstanding in any local authority in the land. He hopes to be able to use their expertise to solve many of the council’s problems but also intends commissioning colleagues elsewhere in local government to bring their skills to bear if required to improve good governance and accountability.
He has 22 years experience working for all three Scottish island councils and is a big fan of the devolved government. “I shudder to think what the three communities would be like now without island councils,” he said.
In the new spirit of positivity Mr Buchan thanked Mr and Mrs Cluness for their warm welcome to Shetland and extended his gratitude to all the staff members and members of the public who had helped him or wished him well. “This is the Shetland I have known and have admired for many years,” he said, adding that he had absolutely no doubt that the future of the council would be properly secured. “Today is about moving forward,” he told members and he hoped it would prove to be a key milestone.
The convener told Mr Buchan his work so far had been exemplary. “I think everybody in this room will have been impressed by what you’ve said.”
Betty Fullerton described the day as a watershed but was in no doubt a lot of hard work would be required to put things right. Bill Manson volunteered to help with the extra work in the hope that Mr Buchan’s timetable for implementing the changes could be speeded up.
Cecil Smith called for all members to work together and support each other and the chief executive in particular, which he said had not happened in his three-and-a-half years as a councillor.
Mr Cooper believed the council was beginning a new journey and it was one which started off with climbing “a braaly steep hill”.