Scotland’s finance secretary John Swinney says he is encouraged by the improvement plan drawn up by Shetland Islands Council, but is calling for “swift progress” to ensure that public confidence in the local authority is restored.
Following a lengthy meeting with convener Sandy Cluness and new chief executive Alistair Buchan in Lerwick on Monday morning, Mr Swinney said he was pleased the plan had been unanimously approved by councillors.
In a letter earlier this month ahead of the visit, Mr Swinney had informed Mr Cluness he was “deeply concerned” about the findings of this summer’s highly critical Accounts Commission report which identified a host of shortcomings within the council, in particular relating to governance and leadership.
Mr Swinney told reporters: “The council has set out a clear improvement plan which has been endorsed by every member of the council. What I want to see is the council making swift progress to take forward that improvement plan and make sure that it is enacted.
“I have had a long discussion with the council this morning about the importance that I attach to the Accounts Commission recommendations being followed up, and the council addressing the issues that have been raised and ensuring the people of Shetland are able to have confidence in the way in which the council operates its many functions on their behalf.”
But Mr Swinney also reminded the local authority that pressure on public expenditure over the next five years will mean bad news for its funding settlement, due to be announced in November’s Scottish budget. He believes the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster is cutting spending “too far and too fast”, with major implications for public spending in Scotland.
Against that backdrop, he has also made it crystal clear to the SIC that the chances of significant assistance in funding being made available for fixed link tunnels are slim for the foreseeable future. He pointed to a cut of around 20 per cent in UK government funding for capital projects and stressed that any discussion of tunnels would have to be “realistic” in the current climate.
Mr Swinney said: “The council has ambitious proposals for fixed links. I’m certainly happy to discuss those issues with the council, but I have made it clear that capital expenditure is going to be under enormous pressure in the years to come. The idea that there is a significant amount of money available to support projects of this type is just not the case.”
He did not rule out entirely that local authorities may be given the power to increase council tax rates after a three-year freeze introduced by the SNP in 2007. It has had to abandon plans to reform the council tax system for this parliamentary term and he said discussions were ongoing with local authority umbrella group Cosla.
“[The freeze] has helped householders at a time of economic difficulty and it has meant that people have been protected from the exorbitant increases in the council tax that took place in previous years. It is an issue, however, that we will discuss with local government.”
Later on Monday, Mr Swinney also met representatives of the community planning partnership, private industry, trade unions and local youth representatives as part of the government’s Independent Budget Review (IBR) consultation. The IBR was published in July and the exercise is designed to find out what communities view as the priority areas for public spending and to garner ideas on making savings.