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Sandy to stay on as convener

SHETLAND Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness has pledged to lead the council as it rebuilds its reputation after a damning report from local government watchdog the Accounts Commission.

The report has come down heavily on Scotland’s northernmost authority after a two day hearing held in June, saying the way it run is “haphazard” and raising “serious concerns” about leadership, financial management and accountability.

It recommends that all councillors and senior officers undergo a comprehensive programme of training and development to learn how to do their jobs properly.

In one of its few positive comments, the report praises the appointment of Orkney Islands Council chief executive Alistair Buchan to lead the SIC through an improvement programme over the next two and a half years.

However it warned of people placing “unrealistic expectations” on Mr Buchan’s shoulders, saying his success depends on councillors doing their job with support from officers and effective leadership from the convener.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday morning shortly after the report had been published, Mr Cluness said the council took its findings “very seriously”, and though it was too early to provide a detailed response they would be “minded to accept them”.

He added that he had every intention of staying on as convener to lead the council through the difficult times ahead, saying he felt the councillors were being collectively criticised for their lack of leadership.

“My position is unchanged and it will remain unchanged unless the council decide something else.

“I accept whatever criticism comes my way as leader, but I think what they are talking about is leadership in general within the community and that’s something for every councillor to think about.

“It is not easy in a small community without parties to lead a council. We live in a democracy, and when we change our minds we change our minds. It is not like having a party behind me which makes the decisions and we stick to them.

“Although we have been through a turbulent period culminating in this report, I would like to reassure the public of Shetland today that the council has been working very hard since the hearing to put in place the building blocks for improvement.

“We are facing a huge challenge to deliver savings across the council and to respond effectively to today’s findings. However I’m confident that if we all get behind the improvement plan that is developing, we will succeed in restoring confidence in the council as a well run organisation that’s committed to delivering excellent services for the people of Shetland.”

Mr Buchan said this was no time for knee jerk reactions and that he had already been working on a “package of measures to see significant and rapid improvement throughout the organisation”.

“I have the bones of an improvement plan in my mind, but it is important that this is in no way seen as my plan. I need some more informal contact with councillors. What I want is consensus,” he said.

Responding to the report’s comments about unrealistic expectations being placed on his shoulders, he said: “Wherever you go these days there are always high expectations of the chief executive, and rightly so.

“This is a democracy we work within, and I think the chief executive can make a critical difference, but at the centre of a team rather than as any sort of hero leader type model. That doesn’t work in local government.”

Further dialogue with the Accounts Commission and the council’s external auditors Audit Scotland will take place over the next few weeks, and the council will meet in public within the next three months to consider its response and come up with an action plan.