I was a bit surprised to see my friend Gary Robinson’s reported remarks criticising the Shetland Charitable Trust.
I’m reluctant to have a public dispute with him, as I’m a supporter of most of what he’s done as council leader.
However, as Gary knows very well, the trust is only following Shetland Islands Council’s example in belatedly (and painfully) bringing its spending under control, in order not to waste the trust’s reserves, as a former council administration diminished its own nest egg.
Unlike the council, if the trust uses capital as if it were revenue and ends up by spending down the charitable funds to zero, the government will not step in to ensure that vital public services continue.
The trust is on its own and the trustees have a clear duty, as well as a stated policy, to maintain the trust fund in perpetuity. This is for the long-term benefit of the trust’s beneficiaries, including partner organisations such as the council and the NHS.
It is not true to say that the trust hasn’t “engaged” with the beneficiaries. All were warned that cuts were on the way and, in view of the possible effects on staffing at other trusts and organisations, the trust took care to ensure that they did not find out the scale of the cuts from the media, but rather were informed at private meetings with trust staff.
The reaction of major beneficiaries such as Shetland Amenity Trust has been measured and reasonable. They understand that by phasing in these unavoidable cuts in budgets over four years, rather than in a single year as the financial situation might appear to dictate, trustees have actually agreed to spend about £2 million of the fund’s capital.
We judged that loss preferable to the serious disruption that would have resulted from overnight withdrawal of funding.
I was present at many of the discussions that wrestled with the financial quandary facing the trust and I can assure your readers that all trustees were extremely reluctant to spend less than we currently do on the many good causes we support.
In the end we agreed what I think was a reasonable, defensible and fair compromise, albeit very painful to many of us.
Gary’s position on the future of the trust is the same as mine: there should be no councillor trustees and the trust should always include a directly-elected majority, in addition to a minority of trustees co-opted for their skills, experience and public spirit.
The constitutional position of Shetland Charitable Trust is quite clear and I hope Gary will understand why I believe it should retain its recently-gained independence.
The trust is not legally part of the public administration of these islands, which is and ought always to be administered and paid for by the Scottish government and Shetland Islands Council.
Trustees will no doubt always be willing, within the limits of their budgets, to help pay for extras to improve the life of the inhabitants of Shetland, particularly those who are disadvantaged for various reasons, but they cannot and will not become part of local government. Been there; done that …