COUNCILLORS in Shetland have unanimously backed a road map for the future drawn up by their new chief executive Alistair Buchan, after a year of crisis that has seen public confidence in the local authority drop to an all time low.
Mr Buchan has presented a series of measures he hopes will lay the foundations for change at Shetland Islands Council that will endure the next decade and address major concerns raised by local government watchdog, the Accounts Commission.
The former Orkney Islands Council chief executive, who has an impressive record of running an effective organisation on a limited budget, said he had no doubt the SIC had all it needed to move forwards.
Many of the council’s problems stemmed from an absence of procedures and structures that should have been in place for many years, he said.
On Wednesday he was given authority to embark on a series of measures to redesign the way the council works, including a restructuring of both committees and senior management.
With financial pressure bearing down on the council, he wants a “pragmatic approach” to managing staff vacancies, saying that he wants to avoid compulsory redundancies.
He assured members that he would not be employing a lot of new staff to implement his programme of change as that would create pressure on existing employees whose careers and livelihoods need to be protected.
However he is very keen to put into action the council’s longstanding policy of dispersing jobs throughout the islands, a suggestion that won the enthusiastic backing of the entire council.
He also intends to set up a communications office to make sure the authority sends out a clear message to staff and councillors as well as the wider public through the local media.
To help him maintain a healthy relationship with the SIC’s 22 members he has proposed a seven strong sounding board with whom he will liaise as changes are introduced.
After some debate on the best way to select the board, councillors picked one councillor from each ward, with only one battle for Lerwick South, in which Cecil Smith beat Jonathan Wills by 15 votes to three.
The other members of the sounding board are Laura Baisley, Addie Doull, Andrew Hughson, Gary Robinson, Allison Duncan and Allan Wishart.
Mr Buchan said that he had discussed his proposals widely and won general support from within the council itself and the wider world of local government. “I hope today will be a milestone in preparing the way for the next decade,” he said.
He added that it was important not to focus too much on addressing the concerns of the Accounts Commission, who have demanded a response to their own recommendations by mid November.
He told councillors: “It’s important that the council responds appropriately to the report and findings of the Accounts Commission…but it would be entirely wrong and counter productive to focus solely on the Accounts Commission. It’s about what you as an organisation want to do.”
Scottish finance secretary John Swinney has made it clear he expects the council to tackle the problems identified by the commission with a sense of urgency and will be visiting Shetland soon to see how it is doing.
Mr Buchan was also clear that Shetland should not simply bow to the demand from its external auditors to group its accounts with Shetland Charitable Trust, an organisation that invests £220 million on the community’s behalf and supports a wide range of local services.
Refusal to group the accounts has led to the council’s own accounts being qualified for the past four years, an issue which the authority has pledged to address.
Mr Buchan said: “We need to be absolutely clear of the facts and options and the implications of each option before taking a decision which could have extremely far reaching consequences for this community.”
Council members voiced no criticism of Mr Buchan’s report, though they did insist on a greater urgency on restructuring the council’s committees.
Recognising the scale of the challenge, councillor Alastair Cooper said: “I think we have begun a journey. It’s a braaly steep hill and we have to accept the community expects us to climb this hill in the next month when some of it isn’t achievable for the next year.”