No going back on speed of cuts, warns new SIC political leader

Shetland Islands Council’s new political leader Gary Robinson has warned that he believes there must be no going back on the planned pace of spending cutbacks in the next two years.

Earlier today Mr Robinson, 43, defeated Allan Wishart by 13 votes to eight to assume the leadership mantle, succeeding the retired Josie Simpson. He will team up with a new convener, 49-year-old former police chief inspector Malcolm Bell, who steps straight into Sandy Cluness’s shoes having only just entered the council chamber.

After being elected with a landslide majority in Lerwick North on 3rd May, Mr Bell had little difficulty batting off the challenge of returning councillor Cecil Smith for the £20,294-a-year convener role, winning a secret ballot by 15 votes to six.

The election of Mr Robinson – an outspoken opponent of the last council – and Mr Bell appeared to reflect a desire among many of the 13 SIC newcomers to place clear blue water between the new administration and its predecessor.

Mr Robinson said the local authority had to face “harsh reality”, with the main priority getting its finances under control. He was insistent that the new administration must stick to plans agreed by the outgoing council in February, and strive to save nearly £30 million from the annual budget by the start of 2014/15, subject to a string of service reviews.

All but one of the 22 councillors was present at a sun-kissed Lerwick Town Hall this morning for the inaugural meeting of the 2012-2017 council. The average age of an SIC councillor is now 56, down from the mid-sixties at the start of the last council in 2007, though the number of women has fallen from five to just three.

The meeting lasted almost four hours as committee memberships and appointments to more than 40 external bodies were thrashed out amid a cordial and constructive atmosphere. Mr Robinson even said he detected “conciliatory messages” between Mr Wishart and Billy Fox, well-known foes over the divisive Viking Energy windfarm.

Both Mr Bell and Mr Robinson, whose position attracts a yearly salary of £27,058, have vowed to treat their respective positions as full-time jobs. Mr Robinson, who works as a pool attendant at Clickimin, said he was still in discussions with his employer, Shetland Recreational Trust, but intends to give his full attention to the leadership role.

The most eye-catching of the other appointments saw former Shetland Times editor and debut councillor Vaila Wishart appointed, unopposed, as chairwoman of the education and families committee.

With another round of school closure proposals likely to be in the offing – though much hinges on the outcome of the government’s Commission on Rural Education, due in August – it is one of the most challenging SIC briefs. Ms Wishart accepted difficult decisions lay ahead, but was clear that responsibility must lie with councillors who “need to stop putting staff in the frontline to take all the flak”.

Having missed out on becoming convener, Mr Smith grasped the opportunity to pick up where he left off in April, defeating newcomer Gary Cleaver by 15 votes to six to resume his position as social services committee chairman.

Two other major appointments were made without opposition: Alastair Cooper reassumes the reins of the development committee, while Mr Wishart’s consolation prize having missed out on the leadership is to be chairman of the wide-ranging environment and transport committee.

A number of council candidates said during the campaign that they wanted to see the cuts spaced out over a longer period of time. But Mr Robinson was adamant that the new council must not deviate from the planned budget, because to do so could jeopardise the local authority’s £200 million oil reserves.

He said: “I think it’s absolutely clear that if we don’t continue with the pace of cuts, that we’re going to leave ourselves in a situation where the reserves will be gone before we’ve made sufficient cuts. If we end up in that situation the harsh reality is that we will have to cut deeper.

“I think the only thing that may be up for some degree of discussion is exactly where the cuts fall,” he continued. “But I’m going to be quite hard with members here, and if somebody comes forward and says ‘we don’t want to cut something’, I think it’s incumbent upon the members to come back and say where that money could be saved from.”

Trade unions have bitterly opposed the pace and scale of the cuts, but Mr Robinson said he hoped to foster a better working relationship with the unions. He was involved in the single status pay talks a few years ago and hopes to “wind the clock back a bit to where we left off on single status, and begin the discussions there”.

Asked how he will approach the challenge of leading a council consisting of 22 independent members, Mr Robinson said he felt spreading the various jobs widely among members had been a good start. While there will inevitably be disagreements on occasion, he hopes that can happen without “splitting down into the sort of factions that the last council did”.

“I’m very keen to work with all members and deliver on their manifesto commitments, and the council’s corporate priorities,” he said. “Part of the problem with the last council was that there were certain sections of councillors that just didn’t have the ear of the leadership at all. I don’t want to see that happening this time around.”

Mr Bell, who was proposed by new North Isles councillor Steven Coutts, said he was “slightly overwhelmed” to gain the backing of his colleagues. He views the convener’s role as providing a bridge between the leadership and the rest of the council, describing the position as “the impartial chair, the conscience of the council as far as possible”.

“It is an honour and a privilege to take up this role,” he said. “Although many challenges lie ahead of us, I believe the best days for Shetland are still ahead, and I’ll work hard to develop links between the leadership, staff, and the wider community.”

Mr Bell was pleased to have attracted votes from both new and previous councillors, as he too wants to avoid “splitting into factions or cliques”. The member for Lerwick North said he and Mr Robinson had “complementary skills” and plan to be “very much a joint leadership team”. Mr Robinson joked that he was “thankful to have a policeman at hand that’ll maybe keep me in line”.

One of the top issues in the new leadership’s bulging in-tray will be seeking clarity on the North Boats contract from the Scottish government. A Court of Session hearing on Friday morning will determine whether the government can go ahead with signing the £243 million contract with Serco after rival bidder Streamline lodged a legal challenge.

Mr Robinson said the current limbo was “disappointing” and, with the contract due to be handed over at the start of the busy summer holiday period, the uncertainty was “certainly not helpful” to Shetland. He aims to speak with government ministers as soon as possible.

“I think all members would agree that we have been disappointed with the lack of engagement with the council, and the lack of information that we’ve got,” he said. “It didn’t help matters either that when our staff were consulted, they effectively had to sign up to maintain the confidentiality of the government while they were working for us – it was an utterly bizarre situation to be put in.”

In other appointments, the longest-serving councillor, Frank Robertson, will be putting his many years of experience to use as planning board chairman.

Newly-elected councillor Andrea Manson has unseated Robert Henderson – the only councillor absent from today’s meeting – to become the new harbour board chairwoman, having won out 13-8 in a vote.

Allison Duncan will be in charge of the audit and standards committee, having served an apprenticeship under recently-retired councillor Florence Grains in the last council.

Other appointments include former Shetland College boss George Smith as licensing committee chairman, while Drew Ratter will be chairman of the college board.

SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan said he felt the council had “got off to a flying start”, with an emphasis on teamwork to secure the best results for Shetland.

“We all worked extremely hard through the induction process to foster that, and I think that’s shining through and there’s no reason that can’t continue into the future,” he said. “It’s off to a very good start and I’m delighted, and I offer my congratulations to the new convener and new leader, and look forward to working with [them].”


Political leader: Gary Robinson

Convener: Malcolm Bell

Education and families committee: chairwoman Vaila Wishart, vice-chairman George Smith

Social services committee: chairman Cecil Smith, vice-chairman Allison Duncan

Development committee: chairman Alastair Cooper, vice-chairman Theo Smith

Environment and transport committee: chairman Allan Wishart, vice-chairman Michael Stout

Planning committee: chairman Frank Robertson, vice-chairwoman Andrea Manson

Audit and standards committee: chairman Allison Duncan, vice-chairman Jonathan Wills

Harbour board: chairwoman Andrea Manson, vice-chairman Robert Henderson

Licensing committee: chairman George Smith, vice-chairman Cecil Smith

Shetland College board: chairman Drew Ratter, vice-chairman Peter Campbell

You can view the full list of committee memberships here:



Add Your Comment
  • Gary Cooper

    • May 23rd, 2012 21:12

    Wow! Does democracy mean competency? Watch this space…

  • Bert Robertson

    • May 23rd, 2012 23:33

    Congratulations to Mr Bell, and the many other appointees today whom I am sure will do the best they can to serve the Shetland community, but I beg of you all to reconsider and re-run the vote for political leader.

    This appointment makes a mockery of the “new” council – what is the point if one of the people who caused the most problems in the previous administration is not only allowed back, but put in a position of power such as this!

    This is not a personal attack – Mr Robinson is no doubt a fine fellow and a good pool attendant, but has proven himself time and again to be a totally inept councillor, nothing more than Will’s “yes man”.

    Please somebody do something before its too late.

  • Maurice Smith

    • May 24th, 2012 10:12


    Bearing in mind how history will probably view the last Council, is it not a mercy that not everyone strove to avoid rocking the magnificent boat SS “Complacency-n-Secrecy”?

    At times the Council seemed to function like the administration of your average banana republic – vital (and expensive) decisions forced through on single-vote margins. Rolling over to have your belly rubbed by the inner clique is not what the majority of constituents expected, nor was it real democracy.

    A look at the voter figures in the election probably bears out my opinion.

    Maurice Smith

  • Douglas Young

    • May 26th, 2012 9:34

    There is little to recommend the last Council, with regard to the large projects it has wasted huge amounts of our money on; the new look Council has broken many cliques who could meet before a meeting to decide how to vote. New brooms are welcome, but the main criticism I level remains, the thousands of voters who are too lazy to even complete a postal vote, or vote of any kind.


Add Your Comment

Please note, it is the policy of The Shetland Times to publish comments and letters from named individuals only. Both forename and surname are required.

Comments are moderated. Contributors must observe normal standards of decency and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The views expressed are those of contributors and not of The Shetland Times.

The Shetland Times reserves the right to decline or remove any contribution without notice or stating reason.

Comments are limited to 200 words but please email longer articles or letters to for consideration and include a daytime telephone number and your address. If emailing information in confidence please put "Not for publication" in both the subject line and at the top of the main message.

200 words left

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.