Trade unions have reacted with despondency to yesterday’s SIC budget-setting meeting, decrying councillors’ debate as “chaotic”, “awful” and “disastrous” for the community.
After an eight and a half hour meeting, councillors agreed to cut their revenue budget by around £16 million in 2012/13 and commissioned a succession of reviews into education, social care and other services aimed at securing huge further savings by 2014.
It is not clear yet what the cuts will mean in terms of job losses, but Unison branch chairman Brian Smith said it was “highly serious” for Shetland that councillors had not discussed the SIC’s policy of avoiding compulsory redundancies yesterday. After the meeting council chief executive Alistair Buchan said enforced lay-offs of staff remained an “absolute last resort”.
Mr Smith said: “It seems to me that the community is not happy with what the present outgoing council has done, and that’s a serious situation in a place like Shetland. The status of these alleged reviews is a bit of a mystery to everybody. How they’re going to be carried out, by whom and what the criteria is going to be will presumably affect the question of how many jobs are in danger.”
Unison and the GMB have consistently called for cutbacks to be made in a more careful and measured fashion. Mr Smith believes yesterday’s meeting, characterised by members “leaping” from one subject to the next, was “so badly run, and so unclear about the outcomes, that it really will have to be done all over again in the forthcoming months”.
Mr Smith gave the proposed closure of Freefield’s lunch club for elderly folk as an example of something which will save little money, but which councillors have inexplicably “got their teeth into in a big way”.
He said there was a total lack of political direction and the consequences of the cuts appeared to be playing second fiddle to “finding the magic figure that [outgoing head of finance] Hazel Sutherland had thought up in September last year”.
“There’s plenty of scope for discussing all these things, but you have to discuss it calmly, with certain principles in the back of your mind,” he said. “You have to do it over a long period – at the last minute, on the basis of fag-packet calculations by officials who have not been instructed properly by councillors, is the very worst way to do it.”
GMB representative Robert Williamson said the relentless drive for cuts was “totally disjointed” and called for a rethink of the “piecemeal” way of sending directors out to find 10 per cent savings across the board “without a clear view of where Shetland’s future lies”.
His fear is that total cuts of £33 million in the next two years or so could cause anything from 600 to 1,000 job losses, with potentially dire social consequences.
“How much is that going to cost between state benefits and the downward spiral from folk being out of work – more alcohol abuse, more drug abuse, domestic violence … it’s not something we’ve experienced here to any great degree. How much is that going to cost us?” he asked.
Mr Williamson said a clearer overarching strategy was essential because services such as education, ferries, roads and transport in outlying communities are so closely interconnected. “There’s no long-term thinking being done,” he said. “It’s rabbits in the headlights.”
He believes SIC politicians should be presenting themselves to both Holyrood and Westminster to negotiate what Shetland’s future might be should Scotland become independent. Because the islands are a “disproportionate contributor to national budgets”, he thinks “significantly more” funding than the present £91 million block grant could be wrung out of London or Edinburgh “by either of them wanting to keep us on board”.
He added: “That’s the case that our leaders should be negotiating, and we maybe wouldn’t be in a situation of having to make these phenomenal cuts.”