More schools could close as hatchet is wielded on SIC services

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The council will propose a fresh round of school closures later this year as it seeks to cut up to £29.4 million from its annual budget by the end of March 2014.

All schools in Shetland will come under the microscope after members unanimously agreed during today’s marathon budget-setting meeting to widen the scope of a review into primary and secondary school provision.

By late this afternoon, that was the only major decision made by councillors as they went line-by-line through proposals for 158 “efficiencies” and 80 cuts to services amounting to more than 20 per cent of the local authority’s entire public services budget.

Head of finance Hazel Sutherland’s 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.

Community anxiety mounted throughout the week after the papers were published on Friday afternoon, as the scale of the cuts became apparent.

Pensioners this week revolted at the proposed closure of the Freefield Centre, with several elderly folk wielding placards outside Lerwick Town Hall’s main entrance before this morning’s meeting.

The report set out proposals to remove just under £20 million of spending on frontline services and £10 million in efficiencies, many of which have already been found this year. Many of the ideas were not mentioned in a three-page SIC advertising feature published a fortnight ago.

Efforts to agree a budget turned into a protracted, disorganised affair. The plan was to go through the measures department-by-department, allowing councillors to pick out anything they were unhappy with, which would then be jotted down and debated fully later in the day.

But it took more than three hours in a congested, stuffy council chamber just to decide which elements of the proposed education cuts merited further discussion. Political leader Josie Simpson struggled to keep a handle on proceedings as councillor after councillor launched into detailed discussion of a host of different measures.

Before breaking for lunch members did sanction a complete “refresh” of the blueprint for education, at the behest of children’s services chairwoman Betty Fullerton. She secured consensus for her suggestion that all options be put on the table in yet another root-and-branch review of schools.

Instead of striving to save £2 million by shutting five junior highs and £1 million from closing six primaries, Hayfield staff will be tasked with finding ways of reaching the £3 million target from anywhere within education spending.

Mrs Fullerton’s predecessor, councillor Gussie Angus, said it had been clear for many years that 33 primaries and seven secondaries weres unaffordable and “however it’s dressed up, we’re speaking about big closures”.

Councillor Jonathan Wills’ biggest objection in education was the idea of saving £500,000 by cutting additional support needs (ASN) teacher numbers. It was difficult to see how mainstream teachers could cope with bigger primary class sizes and cater for the needs of ASN pupils at the same time.

Dr Wills wanted the system kept largely as it is, unlike Mrs Fullerton who described the council’s ASN provision as “gold-plated”. The matter is due to be debated further.

The SIC’s newest member Davie Sandison found cause to scold hardliner Allison Duncan after he added Nesting to his personal wish list of schools to shut in central Shetland. Mr Duncan wants Tingwall and Hamnavoe closed too, moving the pupils into the empty classrooms which used to house Scalloway’s secondary department.

Councillor Rick Nickerson and Mr Duncan were livid at the suggestion of charging S5 and S6 AHS pupils from the outer isles £25 a week to stay in the Janet Courtney Hostel.

Extraordinarily, the budget claimed the move would “reduce inequalities for pupils who are able to travel to school on a daily basis”.

Although the charge would be means-tested, Mr Nickerson could not accept “charging our children for going to school”, effectively introducing fee-paying into Shetland education. The rougher-tongued Mr Duncan deemed the proposal a “damned disgrace” which risked “dividing pupils into a two-class society”. “It’s just not on,” he fumed.

Hostel charging was one of 18 proposals in line for further discussion. Other hot topics included plans to raise music tuition fees by 50 per cent and cut the proportion of pupils being taught an instrument from 40 per cent to 25 per cent.

Councillors were later trying to decide which cuts to community care, economic development and infrastructure they were prepared to swallow.

In addition to closing Freefield, community care measures included shutting Viewforth, relocating patients to Montfield initially, and then to the Edward Thomason and Taing care homes. The meals on wheels kitchen at Kantersted could be shut, while care homes in the North Isles would be integrated and dedicated day care for some older people will come to an end.

At the meeting’s outset, Mr Simpson said councillors faced a “very, very big task” to ensure the oil reserves did not “run out in as little as five years’ time”. The easy thing would be to do nothing and leave the new council to sort out the mess, but that would be “walking away from our responsibilities”, he told councillors.

The council budgeted to spend £127.5 million on services this year. The colossal cuts package would see that drop to £119 million in 2012/13 and £106 million in 2013/14.

Chief executive Alistair Buchan accepted it was unlikely that “each and every” saving would be agreed, but said officials had a responsibility to tell members that the savings were necessary to avoid “black hole” appearing in the budget.

Dr Wills was concerned the cuts were falling disproportionately on education and community care, impacting most on the vulnerable, while departments such as the chief executive’s office and economic development got off relatively lightly. “Is that fair?” he asked. He later suggested merging the chief executive’s department with corporate services to save money.

Worsening the local authority’s monetary headache are a number of new “cost pressures” in 2012/13 and beyond. Increases in the price of electricity and fuel will bite hard, while moving into the new North Ness offices will cost over half a million pounds – though some of that will be covered by selling off other properties.

Dr Wills had initially queried the need for extra staffing costs of £121,000 for the new communications unit, as he felt one press officer would more than suffice. He was pleased to learn that the remainder would go on resources to improve the way the SIC talks to its own staff and to deliver a long-overdue upgrade of the SIC website. He was impressed with a template for the new webpage.

A big review into ferries is likely to lead to inter-island services reduced after the end of the summer. Within the fine print are proposals to:

• Cut air and bus services;

• Shut rural public toilets;

• Introduce car parking charges in Lerwick;

• Reduce grasscutting;

• Strip back road and pavement maintenance;

• Switch off street lights;

• Shut the Viking Bus Station.

As previously reported, talks are to be held with trade unions to slice £2 million from the £91 million wage bill at a time when many public sector workers face pay freezes for several years.

The unions have warned the council is heading for “catastrophe” by seeking to cut too much too quickly, and earlier this week suggested the council should “go back to square one”.
Unison branch chairman Brian Smith said the report should be thrown out completely until councillors get ample information in front of them to take critically important decisions. A long-awaited study of the Shetland economy is due to be published this spring.

Mr Smith also criticised the council for publishing the report, packed with hastily put together ideas, “at the very last moment, so many people may not be aware of its contents”. He described an accompanying economic report from the Hutton Institute as a “nonsensical document”. It suggested possible job losses of 600 but insisted these could be “soaked up” by the private sector.

Today Mr Duncan hit out at “total mismanagement” in the past 25 years for causing the dire predicament, and expressed concern that unions and council management were “poles apart”. He wants an extra year set aside to resolve matters in an amicable fashion, though he also called for the unions to take a more positive attitude to discussions.

Mr Buchan responded that tensions with the unions were “wholly understandable” in these “extremely trying circumstances”, but vowed to continue dialogue to try and defuse the situation.

Councillor Gary Robinson voiced disappointment at single status being revisited so soon, having been hailed as a “fair deal” locally and nationally. None of the staff were getting merchant bankers’ salaries, he said, and the problem’s root cause was not high pay but the hundreds of extra jobs created in the lifetime of this council.


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