Shetland is braced for bright beginnings over the four years leading up until 2020, despite darkening clouds – in the form of grant allocation cuts from the Scottish government – lurking over the horizon.
The council’s political leader is confident the SIC can weather any storms which may arise as a result of the cash shortfall from Edinburgh, and has taken time to herald the arrival of a new corporate plan which sets out the council’s stall over the coming years.
Gary Robinson says he is “particularly pleased” to have seen the authority bring its spending down to sustainable levels – a move which has seen the draw on reserves cut by 80 per cent.
Speaking at a press briefing following Tuesday’s special SIC meeting, Mr Robinson said there was no indication yet as to how much the next grant from Edinburgh would come to.
He said there was an anticipation within the council that it would be on a “downward trajectory” over the next three years.
The grant allocations for local authorities, he said, are expected to be announced in January.
But Mr Robinson said he believed the Scottish government aimed to give an indication on budget settings to Cosla in December.
“We do anticipate that the grant that we get from the government will be reduced over 2016/17, it’s just not clear yet as to how much that’s going to be,” he said.
“It could even be January before John Swinney announces the budget. He has given a commitment to Cosla that he will give them an indication in December, which I think will be very helpful for councils as they all begin their budget setting processes.
“On the basis of one year, it’s not hugely critical to know what the budget setting is going to be, because we know that it’s on a downward trajectory for the next three years. We know we will have to cushion that fall, so knowing exactly what the grant is going to be would be helpful, but I certainly believe we can set a budget on the basis of the information we will have come December.”
His comments came after fellow councillor Allison Duncan warned against complacency in the face of “harsh decisions” which are likely to be required in the future.
Mr Duncan, who witnessed the previous council’s out of control spending, was speaking after Audit Scotland cleared the SIC’s accounts as being “true and fair”.
“This is the best report that’s ever come to the audit committee since 2007, and it’s all down to the dedicated and hard work of the professional staff in Shetland Islands Council,” he told councillors.
“As a word of caution, there can be no complacency because we are going to face some harsh decisions in the future.
“There are going to be several financial restraints because we know finances from Westminster and Holyrood are going to be reduced, so it’s imperative that we have to be careful with our financial assets.
“It’s great to know we’re here not facing very hard questions from Audit Scotland or the Accounts Commission. We really got a pasting at times, and rightly so, but we were then on a rudderless ship. Now we’ve changed course and we’re all the better for it.”
Highlighted in the council chamber as “readable” and “accessible”, the corporate plan for the four years leading up to 2020 is, in some respects, scant on detail. But it does focus on five areas of interest for the authority – young people, older people, economy and housing, community strength and “connections and access”.
“We’ll be monitoring our progress, and making sure our resources are supporting those areas in particular,” said Mr Robinson.
“Given the potential reduction in government funding over the coming years, we’ve a lot of work ahead to make sure we continue to provide high quality services to the community, but I’m extremely pleased with the progress we’ve all made so far.”
A balancing act for the authority will be the task of maintaining services against the backdrop of government grant cuts.
But the council has been keen to highlight a “performance snapshot” provided by chief executive of the Improvement Service, Colin Mair.
His findings include:
• The SIC’s service performance is consistently in the upper 25 per cent compared to the whole of Scotland, and is particularly high for education and adult social care;
• Public satisfaction with council services is among the highest in Scotland;
• The council has one of the best “balance of care” records in Scotland for adult care;
• In education, S4 and S5 performance is among the best in Scotland, with the S4 performance particularly strong.
The SIC says it spends more than any other local authority across all services. But insists it has still been able to cut spending by about 15 per cent in real terms between 2011/12 and 2013/14. That, the council says, is in line with the rest of Scotland.
Mr Robinson said: “We’re not good at giving ourselves a ‘pat on the back’ when it comes to our performance, but the feedback we’ve had from the Improvement Service is a reminder that the council provides a consistently high standard of service to the people of Shetland.
“I’m particularly pleased that we’ve achieved our target of bringing our finances under control – which was an enormous challenge to the organisation back in 2011.
“We’ve also been able to introduce significant initiatives and improvements in several areas – including negotiating with the Scottish government on reaching financial close on the new Anderson High School, setting up the innovative vocational academies through the Shetland Learning Partnership, and resolving the council’s historic housing debt.
The corporate plan can be downloaded via a link on the council’s front page at www.shetland.gov.uk.