Councillors have given the thumbs up to chief executive Alistair Buchan’s ideas for a “root and branch” review of the SIC in response to the Accounts Commission’s devastating report into a catalogue of shortcomings within the local authority.
With members seeking to mend broken relationships, a united front of sorts was presented in the Town Hall chamber this morning as Mr Buchan’s plan to restore stability to the council was unanimously ratified.
Following its two-day public hearing in June, the Accounts Commission said it had discovered an organisation ridden with major problems in leadership and governance and destructive tensions between members and officials.
That followed a deeply damaging schism surrounding the appointment and departure of former chief executive David Clark, whose nine-month tenure in office was marred by bad blood. Mr Clark was present in the chamber to hear his successor outline to members the scope for far-reaching improvements to be made.
Having recently likened the process to “turning around a super tanker”, Mr Buchan once more stressed the enormity of the task against a backdrop of the most difficult period financially for local government since World War II.
While eager to make changes quickly, the Orcadian’s measured approach to date reflects his concern at the “fragility” of the organisation. “The faster you drive a boat through the water, the more uncomfortable it becomes for everybody on board. This is a time for cool heads.”
The commission’s report acknowledged the oil-rich local authority’s ability to deliver a high quality of public services, but said there appeared to be “little consideration” of getting value for money. That will be Mr Buchan’s primary challenge over the next two years and it is understood he was taken aback by aspects of how the council operates when he started the job three months ago.
He has laid aside a budget of £1 million this year to improve how the SIC functions and develop a clear vision of where it is heading. That includes putting in place systems to support the political leadership and to smooth the transition following the May 2012 elections, when convener Sandy Cluness is due to retire.
A new communications office has been created to aid better engagement with the community, while efforts to develop the SIC’s workforce and attempts to disperse more council jobs to outlying areas are to be “reinvigorated” as part of the plan given the thumbs up by councillors this week. A more rigorous financial strategy is to be introduced and an overhaul of the unwieldy committee structure is also likely.
Mr Buchan told members it was imperative the council “takes ownership” of the plan because “if people see this as just appeasing the Accounts Commission we’ll have failed at the first hurdle”. The organisation must “change because it wants to change, not because it has a gun pointed at its head”.
Councillors were broadly receptive of his ideas and one by one expressed a desire for this to be the final chapter on what Rick Nickerson described as an “at times extremely embarrassing, stressful” time in the chamber.
Some harbour a sense of injustice that the commission has made some unfair criticisms and wrongly attributed blame to all 22 councillors, rather than singling out those most culpable.
Attempting to address that perceived injustice, Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith – who has been chairing the “sounding board” tasked with drawing up the response – clearly outlined the task members must now confront.
He said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that we have challenges ahead. We have been criticised, some more than others, and there are some who have a grievance – I accept that and to some extent have sympathy with them.
“The criticism, if we want to call it that, has been levelled at the council, and that is all of us. We need to start standing shoulder to shoulder with each other and with our chief executive to move this council forward. The prize for this council, and indeed this community, is far too big to throw away by repeating history and going off on our own tangents.”
West Mainland member Gary Robinson accepted Mr Buchan’s course of action, but was concerned at the council “blithely accepting” the commission’s findings as he felt its report had been poorly researched, was lacking in evidence and had not managed to “drill down” to who was responsible for what went wrong.
Commission chairman John Baillie told this newspaper in September that apportioning blame to individuals would have “taken an awful lot more evidence” and he was “more interested in getting things put right”.
The massive worry for Gussie Angus is how budgets can be balanced “without seriously impacting on services”. He harked back to an alarming report from executive director of services Hazel Sutherland in July, which showed only £75 million of the SIC’s annual £131 million budget consisted of statutory spending, the remainder going on services it chooses to provide over and above that.
Moving forward will be a “long, hard road”, said Lerwick North member Allan Wishart, but he was pleased at the professional and coherent manner of the SIC’s response and said the coming years were likely to “throw a searchlight on some dark corners of the council”, which he welcomed.
With Audit Scotland’s latest report – going before Monday’s audit and scrutiny committee – repeating its broken record-like mantra that members have “yet to demonstrate they are able to collectively take the difficult decisions required”, some say the litmus test for this council will come when it has to grapple with deeply unpopular moves such as next month’s vote on proposals to shut secondary departments in Scalloway and Skerries.
Perhaps mindful of that looming decision, central ward member Iris Hawkins expressed “deep concern” that the response placed so much emphasis on members’ corporate duty, saying it felt like they were being told they were “not meant to act as constituency councillors”. Mr Buchan tried to ease her anxiety by stating the councillors’ code of conduct clearly stated members have both corporate and constituency duties to perform.
Some members were pessimistic about the prospect of rebuilding trust within the chamber after all the ruptures since last June. North Mainland member Alastair Cooper in particular believed it to be the “big issue” and until it is resolved – and many observers believe it simply won’t be before a fresh set of elections – he believes any strategic document is “not worth the paper it’s written on”.
Mrs Hawkins said trust and respect were things that had to be earned, while she accepted it was “very important we learn lessons and keep all 22 councillors on board after all the strife that we’ve had … or we’ve had it”.
Mr Buchan again talked of making “judicious” use of the oil reserves, along with major cost-cutting efforts, to help Shetland through a period of public spending cutbacks, but that was something Mr Cooper was “absolutely opposed” to and he believes there is a “strong body of opinion” against any such move.
So far efforts to save an ambitious £9.9 million in the current financial year are floundering, with only £2.5 million of real cuts achieved, of which only £300,000 will be “ongoing, recurring” savings.