I did save Westside schools – and here’s how. Some of my more excitable opponents have recently claimed that I broke my pledge to my constituents to support the schools in my ward, and that I somehow failed to deliver what I promised.
Indeed I’m even quoted as having said in September 2012 that “although I stood at the last election on a ticket supporting local schools, that he could not rule out support for closure of six schools.”
I did indeed say, repeatedly, that I could not rule out closing schools. This was the honest thing to say because of one very simple fact: the council was rapidly running out of money in 2012. The value of the council’s reserves had crashed through the £250 million “floor” set by our predecessors and was still heading down – towards £150m. We were warned that if we didn’t curb our spending then the council’s oil funds would have dwindled away to nothing by now.
This mattered because for many years the council has spent more on education than you would expect – by supplementing the government grant with money from the SIC reserves. The sums are significant: in 2012 it was estimated that over £10m per year went from the reserves to schools and education. The £180m then in the reserves couldn’t possibly continue this level of education spending, let alone the additional £20m or so we expected to spend on other services that year.
I feared that the loss of the reserves might be unstoppable because, for example, in 2012 councillors were obsessing over what I saw as the relatively minor process of moving the Freefield pensioners’ lunch club a few hundred yards along the road to Islesburgh.
If we’d failed to halt all the uncontrolled spending then this doomsday scenario would have left the council looking for many millions of pounds in cuts, not least in education, where school closures would have been inevitable.
Happily this didn’t come to pass. Why? Because the council I’ve led for the past five years did manage to turn its fortunes around. Instead of having £180m in dwindling reserves we now have over £300m and relative financial stability. That amount can sustainably support almost twice as much expenditure as was prudent in 2012, on vital council services like schools.
If voters really believe that I’ve let them down, in spite of the plain fact that all the schools in my ward are still open, or if they believe that someone else has the experience, courage and determination to do what I’ve done, then they should, of course, vote for someone else. But if the electors understand that nobody has done more than I have, to secure sustainable council services, including schools, then I hope they will favour me with their votes.
(Independent candidate for Shetland West ward)
17 Burnside, Lerwick.