Scores of senior SIC staff invited to leave as union voices anger over ‘savage’ cuts

Seventy-five senior managers in Shetland Islands Council have been invited to leave through early retirement or voluntary redundancy as the local authority looks to shed 15 of its biggest wage-earners.

A letter sent out last week is already eliciting willing candidates, according to chief executive Alistair Buchan and management consultant Keith Yates on Tuesday.

The removal of a layer of management by the end of summer is intended to save £1 million by this time next year from the £5.8 million it costs at present.

Yesterday councillors agreed in private to back the next step in the council’s radical restructuring plan, sanctioning the recruitment of five new directors from those amongst the 75 who wish to remain. It is intended they will be in post within a mere three weeks to replace the existing two executive directorships under Mr Buchan, held by Hazel Sutherland and Gordon Greenhill.

The mood among members arriving to consider the proposals in the Town Hall was sombre, reflected even in their dress style which was more formal than usual. The gravity of the occasion was also being felt in council offices across Lerwick where senior staff are anxious about their future and unsure what jobs they will soon be doing.

Once the five new directors start in July they will help decide the composition of 34 new manager posts below them, which may be thrown open to more of the existing staff than the 75 current managers. Many of the managers already know they face having to re-apply for their existing job or redrafted posts. The plan is to have the new managers in post by the first week in September.

Those affected by the shake-up were told of the implications of the decisions at a meeting in the Clickimin Centre yesterday afternoon. The restructuring is aimed at saving money and also improving the council following heavy criticism of its performance by the Accounts Commission and Audit Scotland.

But the union representing most top officials, Unison, warned the management restructuring was a precursor to “savage” cuts in jobs and services to come which local branch organiser Brian Smith said could topple Shetland into economic depression.

His call for a public debate about the nature of cuts being sought to reduce council spending next year by £18 million was welcomed by Mr Buchan.

Once the new management team is in place councillors are likely to be asked to back further job cuts in the coming year and new working practices, potentially affecting hundreds more council employees. According to Mr Buchan and Mr Yates there will be opportunities for all council workers to volunteer for severance packages.

Mr Buchan repeated an earlier pledge that forced redundancies would be “an absolute last resort”, but he could not rule them out. Wages account for around £80 million of the annual spend of £126 million. The council is already starting to look for savings of £18 million from next year’s budget, driven by the cuts in funding from the UK government via the Scottish government and the long-standing ambition to tame the council’s habitual overspend.

Another part of the restructuring plan involves the dispersal of council jobs to rural parts of Shetland on a scale unprecedented and previously undreamt of in the islands, which will depend largely on first-rate broadband communications being provided.

During yesterday’s Town Hall meeting members voted not to back councillor Jonathan Wills’ call for the jobs to be advertised outwith the local authority to widen the pool of candidates. Nor did they agree to his call for applicants to sit a test in writing plain English.

However, shortlisted hopefuls will face close scrutiny of their abilities, including the attentions of two psychologists and psychometric testing of attitudes, abilities and personality traits.

After being vetted by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers they will be interviewed by seven members of the council’s new executive committee. Once in post they will undergo a leadership training programme.

There has been some concern about the speed of the management overhaul. But Mr Buchan said there was a general consensus among councillors that a rapid conclusion was necessary to help end the uncertainty among staff.

The local media was ejected from Tuesday’s Full Council meeting despite Dr Wills’ appeal for the proposals to be discussed openly, which he said would be preferable for the public. Vice-convener Josie Simpson, who chaired the proceedings, said they needed to go into private to “give this justice”.

Unison said it was baffled by the secrecy.


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