Opposition is mounting to the colossal scale of cuts planned by Shetland Islands Council 24 hours ahead of councillors meeting to discuss making cuts of up to £29 million in the next two years.
Trade unions have again warned that the council is heading for “catastrophe” by seeking to cut too much too quickly. They want the budget report thrown out completely until councillors have ample information in front of them for some critically important decisions.
Chairman of the local Unison branch Brian Smith criticised the SIC for publishing the report “at the very last moment, so many people may not be aware of its contents”.
“Councillors will arrive at their crucial meeting with inadequate information,” Mr Smith said. “They will be fortified by a nonsensical document about Shetland’s economic future. They should throw out the budget report and go back to square one.”
Housing surveyor Steven Johnston said the savings were coming on top of cutting £10 million from capital spending. The Hutton Institute estimates job losses of around 600 will result from the spending cuts, but Mr Johnston fears the number could be over 1,000.
In a letter to The Shetland Times, Mr Johnston writes: “While the council has commissioned a report on the socio-economic impact of the proposed changes, it has so far not shown any sign of taking them into account.
“Clearly, the council must make savings in expenditure, but needs to be open about the effect of these savings and engage with the community and stakeholders before making decisions which could have such a detrimental effect on us all.”
Several SIC members believe the bulk of the cuts are simply unavoidable in order to protect the oil reserves, which have fallen well below the £250 million target.
Lerwick North councillor Allan Wishart said members had a “huge responsibility to future generations”, and if decisive action is not taken they risk “tipping the reserves into a position from which they couldn’t recover”.
Some have suggested the “rainy day” has come and the reserves ought to be spent now. Mr Wishart disagreed, suggesting that major works at Sullom Voe, thriving aquaculture and whitefish industries and the prospect of oil rig decommissioning and large-scale renewable energy projects meant it was far from doom and gloom for Shetland’s economy.
The budget report includes plans to slash the £46 million children’s services budget (which includes education) by nearly a fifth and the £26 million community care budget by almost a quarter.
In order to do so councillors are being asked to consider shutting five junior highs, at least seven primary schools, cutting music tuition, reducing teaching and support staff numbers, as revealed by The Shetland Times on Friday.
Burravoe parent council chairman Steven Brown, whose community successfully fought off the loss of its school thanks to Scottish government intervention last summer, is not surprised the threat of closure has returned so soon.
“Nobody’s had time to draw breath and our name is down in black and white already,” he said. “We said at the time of fighting for the school that it was only going to be a matter of time before they were back, because they can’t seem to get it out of their heads.”
The Viewforth care home could be shut, along with the meals on wheels kitchen at Kantersted and the Freefield Centre, while care homes in the North Isles are to be “integrated”.
Talks are to be held with unions to slice £2 million from the £91 million wage bill at a time when many public sector workers are facing pay freezes for several years. A big ferries review is likely to see inter-island timetables reduced to save money.
In all councillors are looking at a suggested 158 “managerial efficiencies” and 80 “service re-design options” for 2012/13 and 2013/14. Within the fine print are proposals to: cut air services and winter gritting, shut rural public toilets, stop paying for Christmas trees, introduce car parking charges in Lerwick, reduce grasscutting, switch off street lights and shut the Viking Bus Station.
North Mainland member Bill Manson, who confirmed he will be retiring as a councillor in three months’ time, told The Shetland Times he believed members would “have to swallow a fair proportion” of the proposed cuts.
While the loss of hundreds of jobs would not be nice for those affected, Mr Manson stressed it would only take the number of staff employed by the council back to roughly where it stood in 2007.
He will be surprised, however, if the SIC has a completed budget by Thursday night and thinks members will need a “second bite” to work through the extensive list of proposed service changes.