The council’s political leader has reacted against calls by a Highlands and Islands MSP for the SIC to think again about school closures.
Gary Robinson says the authority still has “some way to go” before it can realise the “brighter picture” painted by the SNP member Mike MacKenzie – despite ongoing efforts to become sustainable.
Last week Mr MacKenzie voiced concerns about proposed changes to the school estate, which the council says could save over £3 million.
The MSP also spoke about the “renaissance” in the oil and gas sector, along with a potential for 3,000 renewable jobs in the next decade.
However Mr Robinson says Mr MacKenzie’s argument fails to add up. He says a government promise – highlighted in national media – that local communities will be allowed to keep millions of pounds of tax generated by the controversial practice of fracking would be of little benefit to the isles.
He has also pointed to the low price of gas and the delayed completion of the new gas plant at Sullom Voe.
“I noticed Mike MacKenzie’s comments … around how much better off the council’s going to be,” said Mr Robinson.
“I have to question the figures he’s looking at. The income we’ve had from the oil industry has been significantly reduced due to the downturn in throughput.
“The income we expect from Total due to fracking and such like is not likely to be anything like what we anticipated.
“The price of gas is low and the Total gas plant is behind schedule, so we won’t be getting that income as soon as we thought we would.
“I think we’ve got some way to go before we get the brighter picture Mike MacKenzie is talking about.”
Mr Robinson said the council was making progress in “pegging back” its spending from reserves. However, he pointed to reductions in government grants which made sustainability a “moving target”.
“We expected to spend 20-odd million from reserves. That’s likely to be pegged back to the teens of millions.
“On the debit side, though, we are expecting smaller grants from the government in the next three consecutive years.
“I think there is a very good chance indeed that the council will be sustainable next year, but sustainability is going to be a moving target for the foreseeable future due to the fact that our grant is reducing.
“At the end of this council we’ll have around about £10 million of notional loan support, where only a few years ago we had £16 million. There are still some real challenges out there.”
He insisted the SIC was progressing well in its drive to live within its means.
“There is no question we have made vast progress from the position we were in. In 2011/12 the council overspent by £36 million.
“Had we done nothing that would have been £42.7 million in 2012/13. Since the beginning of this council to have reduced the deficit from £42.7 million to somewhere in the teens is a phenomenal achievement within two years.
“I don’t think we can afford to take the foot off the pedal just yet. There is no such thing as nearly sustainable.”