Bressay Brig: key questions (Jonathan Wills)

So now we know the size of the financial disaster from the Bressa Brig fiasco:

• £2,247,935 spent by the council for the brig that never was, including external legal fees (£409,410), consultants (£798,294), SIC staff time (£456,154) and works contract (£489,795) and sundry minor expenses;

• Plus £4,825,727 to settle Lerwick Port Authority’s claim for costs and damages after the SIC went to the Court of Session in 2005 and got a court order (called an interim interdict) to stop the LPA dredging da Nort Mooth, because it would get in the way of one of the Bressa Brig piers;

• So that’s £7,073,662 in total. But no-one is to blame.

That £7m is lost forever. But no-one is to blame. Even at today’s low investment returns, £7m could have earned us about £315,000 a year in interest and dividends.

We could have spent this income, year after year, on old folks’ lunch clubs, holidays for vulnerable children, day care for pensioners, meals for school hostel pupils, music tuition, a town bus terminal, free ferries for seniors, free waste skips, public toilets – and many other council services that, until now, have made this one of the world’s most civilised small communities.

No-one is to blame but lessons have been learned. No-one is to blame, but new procedures are in place. It couldn’t happen again. Maybe not. But why did it happen in the first place?

Most councillors just don’t want to hear any more about it. On Monday they actually voted 9-4 against asking the council’s audit and standards committee to hold an inquiry. It would cost too much to find out what it had cost, we heard. No-one wanted to rake over all this, all over again, someone else said.

The council’s vote against an inquiry was irrelevant because the internal auditors must investigate, anyway. Their independent, factual report must, under the new constitution, come to the audit committee in due course. After that, even the Accounts Commission will presumably take a renewed interest and, as usual, find either that no-one is to blame or, perhaps, that “a big boy done it and ran away”.

Here are some of the questions that will probably not now get an embarrassing airing in any court, but which the internal auditors might wish to ask:

1. Why did the council ignore the clear advice it received, over 10 years ago, that Lerwick Port Authority’s legal “duty of conservation” made it impossible for the harbour ever to agree to a bridge that obstructed the north entrance for the passage of the largest vessels likely to use it (including the Royal Navy’s ships)?
2. Whose bright idea was it to seek the interim interdict in the Court of Session, halting the planned dredging? Was it a councillor, or a member of staff?
3. What legal advice did they seek, from whom, and when?
4. What, exactly, did it say?
5. Did the legal advice point out the dangers of seeking a “wrongful” interim interdict that the council could not justify at a subsequent full hearing in court?
6. Who decided that, because there was no time to call a council meeting to endorse this expensive and perilous legal adventure, they would have to use the emergency powers that reside with the convener and chief executive?
7. Who actually exercised the emergency powers?
8. Was the then chief executive involved in the use of the emergency powers?
9. If not, was he consulted, and what did he say?
10. When the monitoring officer later reported this use of the emergency powers to the council, were members told of the huge financial risks if the court order failed?
11. Did anyone check whether the council’s insurance policy covered it for acts of negligence or folly by suppliers of advice and services, as well as by councillors and staff?
12. Why are we relying on the opinion of the insurers on the question of potential council negligence? Do they not have a vested financial interest in finding none?

We hear soothing words to the effect that seeking an interim interdict is always “a judgment call” and that sometimes people get it wrong, with the best of intentions.

Only a proper inquiry can tell us whether this was indeed an entirely excusable mistake by innocents who all deserved medals, promotions and pensions, or a foolish gamble, recklessly pursued by ill-advised political incompetents and amounting to misconduct in a public office.

Jonathan Wills
Independent councillor,
Lerwick South ward


Add Your Comment
  • Alan Skinner

    • February 22nd, 2012 15:45

    Councillor Wills is absolutely correct. Such egregious incompetence cannot be left uninvestigated. A waste of money on this scale must never happen again, and it is therefore essential to establish how this could possibly have occurred.

  • D. Thomson

    • February 22nd, 2012 16:48

    You are correct Mr Skinner, but every time there has been an investigation in the past into Council and Councillor incompetence it has always been a whitewash, the incident is covered up behind closed doors, and those responsible carry on as before.

    This time there has to be a real and meaningful, independent investigation into the murky depths of all SIC departments, senior SIC officers their relationships with councillors over the last 10 years with real punitive measures against those responsible for wrongdoing.

  • Deborah Rynne

    • February 22nd, 2012 18:40

    No-one to blame?? No-one to blame??
    It is true. Every internal investigation is just a whitewash. Such investigations do not want to find the truth. They only want to absolve officials and councillors alike.

    If there is going to be an inquiry, let it at least happen in public so that everyone can have the pleasure of watching these highly paid officals squirm. it may also end up being more accountable and may then also throw proper light onto the truth.

    And by the way. Its all very well that Alistair Buchan says that these expenses have already been proivided for and so will not result in further cuts. However this cleverly sidesteps the fact that if these expenditures had not been incurred in the first place the deficit would be very much less to start with.

    I don;t blame the council for wanting to hide its shame, nor for taking every step it can to make sure the real truth never comes out. If I was in their shoes I’d be desperate for a cover up too.

  • Misa Hay

    • February 23rd, 2012 9:28

    I find it hard to believe that there is no-one to blame for wasting over £7m of Shetland’s money, especially in these tough times when budget cuts are likely to affect almost every single person in our community and we all are made to ‘think creatively’ how to ‘do more with less’.

    Somebody must have made those decisions and should be reprimanded or take responsibility, that’s how it goes in the normal world! I wish there was proper enquiry into this whole matter and even though the money is lost now it should be a huge lesson for the future!

  • Stewart Mack

    • February 23rd, 2012 9:55

    To me, this is just the tip of the iceberg – the Council, and its officials have wasted many tens of millions over the past decade or so on what can only be described as projects of complete fantasy dreamed up by one or two Councillors and railroaded through, or more scarily “suggested” by officials and then presented in such a way that the Councillors have little option but to go for the “suggested” option.

    You need only look at the new AHS scheme, on then off then on then off then…. Each time huge chunks of time and money have been wasted, to get where? exactly where we started. I’m pretty sure either a new AHS could have been built or the old one suitably refurbished with the money that was wasted, thrown away thus far – If not completed it would surely have been well on its way.

    Its about time the Council and its Staff, faced up to their responsibilities, stopped hiding behind whitewash reports and start actually running the SIC like a commercial organisation, for the good of Shetland.

    If we carry on allowing this type of behaviour to prevail we will soon be all but bankrupt, but hey we will have a huge number of white elephants to look at and admire, so at least we will knwo where some of our money has gone! I wonder how many councillors and officials would be keen to press ahead with silly schemes if they could be held financially accountable themselves?

    On a positive note, the Disctrict Heating Scheme, supported by SIC has got to be hailed as a resounding success and an example to others on how innovative thinking can provide real tangible benefits to the community at large.

    We are already facing some devastating cuts in finances, made worse by this sort of nonsense – So come on SIC shape up – or Ship out!!

  • Sandy McMillan

    • February 23rd, 2012 20:33

    Jonathan, do you know how much has been lost from the public purse, over the last twenty years or so, getting back to the Bridge fiasco, why cant a public enquiry be held, there has to be a enquiry one way or the other, or it is just going to go on and on, this is similar to the high School fiasco millions spent and not a turf lifted, one or more of the Councillors are responsible, and should be held to account, the public surely has the right to know what the story is behind the lose of a massive amount of funds, as this is now become a very common occurrence within the Council Chambers, I cant remember the public ever receiving a explanation of what went wrong when millions of the public purse was lost, and this has not been on a few occasions but many over the years, I have said all along the Councillors think it is monopoly they are playing, what is required is the Councillors who dish out these millions is for them to have a education in arithmetic, or maybe just issue a plain old ready reckoner, or better still a spade so at least we get a piece of turf

  • Jonathan Wills

    • February 24th, 2012 8:48

    The last time I totted it up, Sandy, it was getting on for £30m since 2003 or thereabouts, including lost loans to various failed ventures (No Catch, Whalsay Fish, Judane, etc) and a binbag full of cash for a guy who should have been shown the door, with his jotters and nothing more. Would anyone with a bit of spare time and some spreadheeting skills care to compile an accurate list? it would make interesting reading. No-one was to blame but…

  • Alec Miller

    • February 24th, 2012 16:38

    Yo can add to the list the £500,000 spent on plans for a Fishmeal Plant & Pier at Graven. It hasn’t gone ahead and it never had a chance of being successful if it had been developed.

  • Colin Hunter

    • February 24th, 2012 21:28

    £30m between 22,000 people? How much per person? Answer! £1363.63! A little less than a years council tax for our house. But there’s three people living here so that’s £4090.90, or in other words, about three years worth of my council tax payments that’s gone down the Swannee! So over the last eight years since 2003, approximately three years worth (or 3/8, or 37.5%) of mine and everyone elses money has been wasted on………Nothing!!! Or have I got my sums wrong? Don’t suppose you counted the £20m or so worth of Spanish scrap metal that’s lying at Sellaness Jonathon?

  • David Spence

    • February 25th, 2012 11:16

    Its not just the £7 million being wasted which has to be investigated or a public enquiry held, but the countless millions being wasted on other projects or investments this council has gone ahead with. The Smyril Line fiasco, costing £4.67 million, being one of the more outstanding examples of shear incompetence regarding this Councils performance. They act as if there is a bottomless pit without taking into consideration the long term consequences and Shetland’s future.

  • ian tinkler

    • February 27th, 2012 15:32

    The losses so far will pail into insignificance when, if ever approved, the VE project fails. SSE are already getting cold feet over the “Independence” issue and posturing to re cost their financial commitment. Lloyds Bank, potential financiers of the project, has due to sharp practice managed to turn a profit £2 billion (2010) of last year into a £3.5 billion loss (2011). Now can Shetlanders trust and afford these patnerers with our precious and vulnerable SRT funds? We all know how well our idiotic trustee councillors manage our money. The VE Company has been castigated by advertising standards for dishonest statements. How long can we allow this dubious enterprise to continue and siphon off funds?


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