The struggling voluntary sector should be given the same kind of “free lease” deal that Shetland Arts has been given for cinema and music venue Mareel, according to councillor Allison Duncan.
Shetland Islands Council has responded to Mr Duncan’s comments saying he was wrong to refer to the arrangement as rent free, or without charge.
Last week the council bought a 99-year long lease on Mareel for £1.1million, then leased it back to the arts agency.
This week news emerged that Voluntary Action Shetland (VAS) is in a precarious financial state. Writing in the organisation’s annual review, chairman Gussie Angus said the finances were on a “knife-edge”. In what has been VAS’s busiest year, Mr Angus said that in the face of spending cuts, it was “hard-pressed” to maintain its present services, and yet was expected to help alleviate cuts in council services.
This has incensed Mr Duncan, who is one of the directors of VAS. He was also an early opponent of Mareel, although last week’s lease deal was agreed by councillors without opposition.
Mr Duncan said: “VAS is a wonderful service for Shetland in every aspect they’re involved in. If Mareel got a 99-year lease rent free is it not time for VAS to be considered for rent-free premises?
“If they were treated fairly in the same way it would help alleviate their financial problems. I will look forward to the answer with interest.”
However Shetland Islands Council took exception to Mr Duncan’s description of the Mareel deal as “rent free”. On Thursday afternoon the SIC issued a statement to clarify the matter.
Head of legal services Jan Riise said: “Mr Duncan was not in attendance at last week’s council meeting where members received a detailed briefing on the head lease and sub-lease terms. These documents are registered on the public register of title deeds, for all to see.
“Mr Duncan is not correct when he suggests that the arrangement for ‘Mareel’ is in any way rent free or ‘without charge’. A commercial rent is charged under the head lease to the principal tenant, the council, and under the sub-lease to the sub-tenant SADA.
“Both rental figures are at commercial rates assessed by an independent valuer appointed by the government. At present because SADA is both the landlord and the sub-tenant the net effect is balanced but it is simply not correct to say that each of the leases are anything other than on full commercial terms.”
“In October 2003, when the council was in a better financial position to do so, Shetland Islands Council granted title for the land and buildings now known as Market House to the Shetland Council of Social Services, later renamed Voluntary Action Shetland (VAS), for a nominal charitable sum (£1). The council has no continuing heritable interests in that title.”
Meanwhile demand on the voluntary services, known as the “third sector”, is increasing, with more than 11,000 visitors passing through the doors of VAS’s Market House offices last year.
In these circumstances, Mr Angus said VAS was relying on “external funding and good management” to keep going, and fortunately had just received £500,000 of external funding. But that is not enough to alleviate the financial pressure.
VAS has 38 types of services in its remit, from advocacy to pre-school play. These are delivered by 78 volunteers and supported by 160 volunteer board or committee members.
It also supports 19 resident organisations, and is responsible for Disability Shetland, which has been going for 25 years and has 96 clients.
But funding for these services is “problematical”, with external funders over-subscribed and local funders often requiring repayment of surplus when external funding has been secured.
The coming year will present a challenge. Mr Angus said: “In this financial year VAS will be even harder pressed to respond to the eternal conundrum – how does one do more with less?”
Executive officer Catherine Hughson said that the support services they provide are at full capacity. Many third sector organisations, including VAS, have had budgets frozen for the past seven years, during which time the need for services has continually grown. Now, she warned, it might be difficult to take on more work.
Mrs Hughson said: “Unless we get additional assistance we can’t take on any more self-directed care support payroll administration. This particular service assists those individuals who receive assistance from the council to provide their own carers and therefore they become employers. We don’t want to stop services but it might take us longer to get the organisations or individuals the support they require.”
She added: “We don’t have the volunteers coming through the doors to meet the demand, just because a service is provided by the third sector, these organisations have the same overheads as the council or private provider. Services from the third sector are not cost neutral.”
Many third sector organisations, including VAS, could even face cuts, she said, but this will not be known until the council does its revenue estimate exercise at the end of the year. If the council does not make the expected savings, cuts could be made in the funding given to the third sector, which is seen as a “soft target”.
However cuts will not affect VAS’s involvement with the Change Fund – Reshaping Care for the Elderly. This is a government initiative working alongside NHS Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to reshape care and support services. It is led locally by the council’s community care service.
VAS has to be involved in this project as the government stipulates that the third sector is a partner. To this end VAS has commissioned research to identify gaps in provision and ways in which they could help.
This year VAS has piloted a carers’ centre which offers support to carers through drop-in sessions and group meetings. It also has an outreach service for the outer isles and remote areas.
One of the key functions of the organisation is to support volunteering, which it does through the Saltire awards which are given to people as young as 12.
It also now offers the Volunteer Friendly Award to groups for their work with volunteers. Community Mediation was the first to receive this award, followed by Advocacy Shetland, Shetland Befriending Scheme, which is looking for more volunteers, and the Peer Education Project. This project, which focuses on substance misuse and sexual health, was recently taken over by VAS from the Shetland Youth Information Service.
VAS also supports social enterprise, including the new Shetland Community Benefit Fund. This has meetings with Viking Energy and Scottish and Southern Energy to negotiate for the community benefit fund that is expected to be worth over £2m a year for the 25-year life of the project.