‘Steady as she goes’ for amenity trust in tough financial climate

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Shetland Amenity Trust is pursuing a “steady as she goes” approach in the face of a bleak funding climate in the public sector which is holding the organisation back from pursuing some ambitious new heritage projects, its chairman Brian Gregson said this week.

At its annual general meeting in the boardroom at SAT’s Garthspool offices on Wednesday afternoon, auditors A9 Partnership gave the trust a clean bill of health with director Paul Hetherington saying there were “no issues whatsoever” with its books. SIC councillor and SAT trustee Jonathan Wills noted it was “very pleasant to attend a meeting where the financial news is good”.

Trustees heard that though it had made a technical paper loss of £415,000 in 2010/11 due to the niceties of accounting practices, in real terms it had finished the year with a small gain of £20,591. The accounts show that Hay’s Dock Café, run as a subsidiary company wholly owned by SAT, made a net loss of £12,231.

Mr Gregson said he was a “happy bear”, but pledged to keep a “very close eye” on the amount of funding available. Speaking following Wednesday’s meeting, he told The Shetland Times the trust was under no illusion that the years ahead will be “very, very tight” financially.

Its grant from the charitable trust has been slimmed down from £1.3 million last year to a shade over £1 million in 2011/12, where it will stay pegged for the next three years – meaning a real terms budget cut. There could well be reductions in the money received from Shetland Islands Council too as the local authority grapples with mammoth cutbacks between now and 2014.

The amenity trust has long had an ambitious vision for numerous projects, the most significant being its aspiration to build a world-class visitor centre with a grass roof to house Old Scatness Broch, likely to cost several million pounds. It also hopes to turn Voe House in Walls into a textile working museum.

For the moment, Mr Gregson said, minds were concentrated on the £5 million project to radically transform the buildings at Sumburgh Head, with work due to start on site next spring.

It will see the popular Stevenson lighthouse, dating from 1821, and its surrounding buildings refurbished to provide a visitor centre, self-catering accommodation and offices.

Mr Gregson hopes there will be opportunities to access pots of money which have been effectively out of bounds in recent years due to the amount of cash being ploughed into Olympics-related projects. He said: “I guess the only frustration is there are all these things we want to do, but can’t because there is no funding available.”

He continued: “A lot of bodies that would normally fund have had closed doors because of the London Olympics. Now the funding part [of the Olympics] is out of the way already there are signs that some of those things are looking a bit more hopeful.”

The financial picture locally is somewhat grimmer, though, which is bound to pose challenges to all the public trusts in Shetland. Funding of £1.14 million was given to SAT to run the museum and archives on behalf of the council last year, a service which Mr Gregson pointed out the local authority had a “legal as well as moral obligation” to pay for.

It also received a £471,000 council grant to run tourist body Promote Shetland, which has been showered with plaudits for its work over the past 18 months, and smaller sums for its architectural heritage programme (£250,000) and Old Scatness (£83,000).

Mr Gregson, a former SIC councillor himself, said he understood things were tight for the local authority but he is optimistic funding for the trust’s core services can be sustained.

“I think there is a general impression now that the amenity trust does a good job and does pull its weight, punches above its weight often. We’re not expecting any handouts but hoping our core services [will be maintained].”

He is also thankful the trust’s “passionate and hard-working” staff are not having to go through the sort of turmoil and uncertainty faced by many SIC workers at present. SAT had 104 staff on its books in 2010/11, though its £2.65 million spend on wages was down very slightly on the previous year. One member of staff is paid more than £60,000-a-year.

Mr Gregson said there was no fear of redundancies at present, and though any staff departure is reviewed to see whether a direct replacement is necessary, the trust plans to “do our best to hang onto” employees.

“We have some of the best at their business and we value that very much indeed,” he said. “There are certainly no big bonuses being paid. We’re increasing [pay] as and when we can – virtually all staff are on the same or equivalent scales as council staff [so] we try where we can to keep up with all of that. For a lot of them their jobs depend on how successful they are at attracting funding in.”


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