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New SIC chief calls for patience

SHETLAND Islands Council’s new chief executive has warned councillors of the danger of “fragmentation” as the embattled authority tries to pull itself together after a damning report from local government watchdog, the Accounts Commission.

Speaking at his first formal public meeting in Shetland, Alistair Buchan told the SIC’s audit and scrutiny committee on Monday that he was determined to pull together an integrated package of measures to help the council move forwards.

However he made it clear that he would not be rushed into coming forward with proposals for restructuring the council, as members lined up to present a wish list of changes they want to see implemented.

Mr Buchan has been seconded from Orkney Islands Council for two and a half years to set the SIC on an even keel after nine months of turmoil under his predecessor David Clark that culminated in a two day hearing by the Accounts Commission in June.

The commission’s report, published last week, said the council had “serious problems” with leadership, vision, strategic direction, financial management and accountability and was managed in a “haphazard” fashion.

Mr Buchan told members on Monday that having spoken to other councils “in similar circumstances” he had learned that there was “a real risk” of being deflected from the main goal of reorganisation by focussing too early on individual areas of strategy.

“I am very worried about the potential for fragmentation; we can’t take any of these issues in isolation, they need to be viewed in the round and I can’t stress that point sufficiently,” he said.

“I am being accused of being coy and being a bit slow in coming forward to address some of these issues. The sole reason for that is I am determined to make sure that we have a sensible and coherent set of plans and strategies.

“Governance…is a big and a very important issue and I would like to assure the committee that I am working as hard and fast as I can to take plans forward.”

Nevertheless councillors made it clear they wanted to see an end to the “cumbersome” services committee that controls 80 per cent of the council’s budget, covering education, social care and housing.

Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills called for “a detailed, logically argued proposal” from the council leadership on alternative strategies, looking at what is done on other councils and considering splitting the roles of political leader and civic head.

Dr Wills was also backed by several councillors who said they had full confidence in SIC head of finance Graham Johnston, whose department was criticised in the Accounts Commission report.

Shetland South member Allison Duncan went further and called for Accounts Commission chairman John Baillie and his “cohorts” to apologise to Mr Johnston for their criticisms.

The commission said the fact that the council’s external auditors Audit Scotland had qualified the SIC’s accounts for the past four years “indicates weaknesses in the finance department and its appreciation of the importance of good accounting practice to public accountability”.