Around 50 members of the public attended what was a generally cordial, constructive and wide-ranging two-hour session at Bixter Hall. It was the latest stop on a tour of communities designed to gather fresh money-saving ideas as the council prepares for its latest tranche of spending cutbacks.
One speaker from the floor acknowledged the lobbying being done by Shetland’s two parliamentarians to bring down pump prices. But he said the council’s electricity, fuel and heating bills must put it at “quite a disadvantage” compared with other local authorities and said something needed to be done to smash GB Oils’ “strangling” monopoly over supply.
New executive director Phil Crossland pointed out that every extra penny on the price of fuel added some £45,000 to the ferry services budget. He said looking at how the council buys its fuel was a major part of its efforts to be smarter in shopping around for raw materials and services.
Councillor Frank Robertson voiced an idea one of his neighbours has, whereby the council could bulk-buy fuel and store it in tanks at Sullom Voe. It could use some of the fuel itself and distribute the remainder to be sold at cheaper prices locally.
Several of the nine SIC councillors present spoke at some length about the potentially suffocating pressures on its finances. Members have accepted advice from senior officials that they must strive to find £18 million-worth of cuts in the next two years, on top of £8 million already secured. That is based on a long-term aspiration of restoring the reserves to a floor of £250 million or more.
Senior officials and elected members now quite openly admit that the budgetary crisis has come about as a result of a long-term over-reliance on the community’s oil reserves, worsened by public spending cutbacks being pushed through by the Westminster coalition.
One person noted that few seemed to be questioning whether it was sensible to maintain the reserves at £250 million. Chief executive Alistair Buchan has repeatedly said that a “judicious” use of reserves can help cushion Shetland’s economy against the hard times to come, but trade unions are worried that the speed and scale of the proposed cuts is anything but judicious.
Retired head teacher Jim Nicolson felt the council always seemed to be “fire-fighting” rather than operating with a shrewd spending strategy. He felt “a bit ashamed” when contrasting the SIC with the situation in Orkney and Caithness, which both managed to finance new schools while the replacement Anderson High School project went around in circles.
Theo Smith also questioned how it came to be that other island groups secured eight-figure assistance from the Scottish government to build new schools, while Shetland was left empty-handed. The public should get a better idea of how the AHS project is shaping up at an executive committee meeting in early December.
One contributor wanted to know whether the council had been overly generous in its provision of services. Acting head of finance Hazel Sutherland said it was difficult to differentiate precisely between statutory and non-statutory duties, but the local authority had been able to spend as much as 25-30 per cent more on ferries, schools, roads and other services than Scotland’s other councils.
Councillor Betty Fullerton – who chaired the meeting – accepted the existence of its oil reserves had made it more difficult to plead poverty with successive governments in Edinburgh. One minister had explicitly admitted that Shetland’s wealth meant it was not top of his list of priorities for dishing out cash.
Cost-cutting ideas floated on Monday night included:
• considering whether the oil reserves might be raided to build fixed links between islands, because of the huge savings it could bring if some ferry routes became redundant;
• doing away with distant island allowance for staff, or tweaking staff terms and conditions in other ways to limit the number of jobs which have to be cut;
• turning off many of the street lights which are “blazing all over Shetland all night” throughout the winter;
• working more with other public bodies including the NHS to share resources, including back-office staff;
• using existing desks and equipment to furnish the new office complex at North Ness, rather than buying all-new fittings;
• cutting back on the “wasteful” use of glossy leaflets being distributed to households;
• seeing whether some care services can be outsourced to the private sector (though Sandness resident Alan Robertson thought such privatisation ought to be resisted).
For more detailed coverage of the SIC’s public consultations see this week’s Shetland Times.