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Alarm grows at SIC cuts proposals

ALARM is spreading throughout Shetland as the scale of the council’s proposed cuts begins to hit home.

Councillors debate a 30 page report complete with 10 appendices identifying almost £30 million in annual savings to be implemented over the next two years, around one quarter of the council’s annual budget.

Outgoing head of finance Hazel Sutherland warned members even more money will have to be found, after the savings target ratcheted up from £26 million to £33 million last week.

Council unions have called for the entire package to be ripped up and rethought over a longer period.

Union leaders have voiced outrage at the impact that the estimated loss of 600 jobs would have on the economy, questioning assurances in a consultant’s report that the slack would be soaked up by the fishing and oil industries.

The council package will strike at the heart of some rural communities, with the proposal to save £2 million a year by closing five secondary departments in Aith, Sandwick, Whalsay, Skerries and Baltasound.

Primary schools in Olnafirth, Cullivoe, Burravoe, Skeld, Sandness, North Roe and Urafirth are also back on the hit list, potentially saving £1.3 million a year. These decisions however await the outcome of the Scottish government’s rural education commission.

Other major savings in children’s services would come from a review of additional support needs provision in schools, cutting back further on music tuition and having fewer school support staff.

Community care would also see huge job cuts, with £2 million to be saved every year on day care in the islands care centres alone, and a redesign of services in Lerwick and the north isles to cut costs further.

Inter island ferries are to undergo a major review, leading to fewer sailings and higher fares, which the council believes can save £1.5 million by September this year.
Buses and inter island air services will not be immune from the cuts, with shorter opening times at Tingwall airport proposed.

Other controversial items include introducing car park charges in Lerwick, closing the town’s Freefield Centre, cutting back on winter gritting of roads, closing rural public toilets and even bringing an end to the Christmas trees in Lerwick every December.

Chairman of the council’s blue collar union GMB, Robert Williamson, warned that the council is putting the islands’ economy in “grave danger” if it proceeds.

He called on councillors to follow the example of their predecessors in 2007 who pulled back from the brink during negotiations over single status and worked with the unions to come up with a settlement two years later.

Now the council is proposing to save £2 million a year by cutting back those new terms and conditions agreed in 2009.

He said the council’s focus on rebuilding the reserves over the next decade was flawed if it meant harming the local community to this extent.

“I would rather have a sustainable economy even if we had no reserves, rather than sustainable reserves with no economy,” he said.

“What are you going to do with those reserves if there’s a whole lot of people out of work.

“I am not saying the current size of the workforce is sustainable, but how we change from that is not something you can do at the drop of a hat in two years only to discover your figures don’t add up.”

He warned against councillors making such big decisions just three months before the next election, receiving advice from senior officials who have just got their feet under the table. “We have to work together, we have to be on the same page,” he said.

Unison branch chairman Brian Smith added his voice to the call for restraint, saying the council was looking at “completely dismantling public services” on very inadequate information.

The unions want a thorough analysis of the social and economic impact of the cuts before they are agreed and implemented.

Some council workers have contacted the press anonymously voicing their alarm about the proposals, saying they do not make sense.

One example is the proposed 50 per cent cut in all overtime, which they say looks good on paper, but actually costs more when outside contractors have to be brought in to do the job.

“Consider the number of jobs which could be finished within an hour, or less, of overtime which now take a day and a half, due to making safe, extra travel, etc,” one said.

The report on the service cuts being proposed by the SIC can be viewed at www.shetland.gov.uk/coins/submissiondocuments.asp?submissionid=12989