SIC political leader Josie Simpson yesterday faced down a call for him to spell out what he sees as the community’s public spending priorities as the local authority grapples with unprecedented cutbacks.
Gussie Angus, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr Simpson for the leadership earlier this year, suggested the current public consultation exercise was a “political cop-out” and was being carried out “in a complete political vacuum”.
Mr Angus said the scale of the cuts – £18 million over the next two years on top of around £8 million this year – surely meant having to look again at school closures, along with ferry timetables and community care spending. He wants to know when that debate is going to be had: “Are we going to leave this to officers to tell us what to do?” he asked.
Mr Angus was speaking at a full SIC meeting yesterday where members approved plans aimed at restoring the oil reserves to £250 million by the early 2020s. In backing a three-year “strategic budget plan” they endorsed acting finance chief Hazel Sutherland’s recommendation that annual spending must be permanently slashed by more than a fifth to achieve that goal.
Mr Simpson said the key was finding a package of cuts acceptable to a majority of councillors. He felt asking the public for money-saving ideas first was the right course, because if the SIC had gone on a roadshow with its own proposals they would have been accused of having already made their minds up.
Several top officials have joined senior councillors in presenting the case for cuts. Mr Simpson felt that sent “the right signal to the public that we’re all in this together” and he believes virtually everyone attending the meetings accepted the need for massive savings to be made – though local trade union representatives may beg to differ.
The idea of outsourcing services and jobs to the private sector again cropped up at meetings this week. Other suggestions include: reducing the use of consultants; switching off needless street lights; importing and supplying fuel to council departments and households; cutting back on glossy leaflets; buying less brand new equipment and furniture; and cutting staff pay levels to minimise job losses.
In the meantime top-to-bottom reviews of infrastructure and social care are being carried out. Once detailed proposals are drawn up, they will be presented to the public in another round of meetings in early 2012.
Lerwick councillor Jonathan Wills feared the £26 million cuts did not go far enough to protect the reserves. But chief executive Alistair Buchan said the council had “a fight on our hands” to achieve the “extremely challenging” target already set and he would be reluctant to recommend further cutbacks.
See this week’s Shetland Times for coverage of the cuts meetings in Bixter and Brae.