I’m sure the Shetland Insular Cabal, the undeclared political group that meets in secret and now effectively controls Shetland Islands Council, will have thought this through before their famous vote on Guy Fawkes Day that scuppered the council’s education policy and torpedoed our financial planning.
But I’m a slow learner and it’s only just occurred to me: if we do keep open more schools than we actually need, then we can’t cover the resulting deficit in the education budget by reducing staff and materials for all schools; if we did so we’d be providing a lower standard of education for all pupils; and we can’t do that because it would be counter to our declared policy.
Some folk may imagine we can make the necessary economies by stealth: slowly cutting off resources from small schools that are neither educationally nor financially viable, so the parents will eventually vote with their feet, or perhaps with their all-weather, 4×4 radials. But this is not possible either because it would discriminate against the pupils in those schools, whose education currently receives a massive subsidy at the expense of pupils at (to take two random examples) Bell’s Brae and Sound; and we’re bound by our own policy, and by the government’s, to “gonnae no dae that”.
So it seems we’re stuck with continuing to fund all our schools at the present level, apart from the relatively small cuts we can make by “efficiency savings” that don’t affect the quality of service. Other parts of the local public services will have to find the savings that education can no longer make. I call this Catch 5/11.
The cabal, of course, will already have worked out a detailed plan to deal with this conundrum, this snood, this boorach. They just haven’t told us what it is yet because, well, because it’s a secret and we’re not in their gang, so there …
All we can do as outsiders (and that term now includes several senior elected office bearers) is to speculate on what the new masters of the local authority’s budget may have up their sleeves.
Will they, I wonder, propose some or all of the following, in their cunning plan to bring the council’s spending back to a level it can afford and to preserve its reserves, which in the year 2000 stood at almost £500 million and are now down to just over £200 million:
• Sell one of the large Yell Sound ferries and run a single-ferry shuttle service, with one of the old, smaller boats to cover breakdowns and maintenance periods. Tough on the North Isles truckers, but good news for remote rural shops and a big saving for the rest of us.
• Close the Unst care centre. And while we’re at it, put the charges up a bit at the others. Not popular but it would save a bunch of money.
• Make some big cuts in council subsidies to rural buses. Let country folk drive their own cars or hitch-hike. Ouch!
• Close down the council’s economic development unit. After all, we’re repeatedly told that keeping small schools open will save the economy of various country districts. So why do we need it? Let the market decide.
All of these measures would be very unpalatable and I don’t advocate any of them but no doubt those who do want to keep tiny schools open, when it would be cheaper and better to amalgamate some of them, will have their own, much more popular, proposals ready as the budget planning for 2015/16 and beyond proceeds.
Presumably they’re waiting until after New Year to tell us what’s in their new financial master plan for the years to 2020. After all, they wouldn’t want to make themselves unpopular with the voters by spoiling their Christmas, would they? Nor, indeed, before the council elections in May 2017?
And how, I wonder, will they explain to the electorate why the council has made no real progress on a more rational and “best value” school system despite spending about a million pounds since 1997 on successive failed attempts to do so? “Gutless” is a harsh word but Da Flea was right.
Meanwhile, what about all those CURE posters that deface the roadsides? Yes, I know it stands for Completely Undermining the Rest of Education, but do they have planning permission? If not, what are those busybodies in planning doing about it?
If nothing, why don’t we close down planning and just hire independent advice when we need it? Now there’s a seriously popular idea that would save money, not to mention paper (to judge by the 166-page report on a temporary flue pipe in Sandwick that recently went before the planning board).
Yours, with bated breath …
Lerwick South ward