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Leaders pleased with budget cuts

A pleased, but tired SIC leader Josie Simpson after Thursday's council meeting. Pic. Shetland News

COUNCIL officials in Shetland are heading back to the drawing board to redesign the education service from top to bottom in a bid to save £3 million a year.

The move comes after the longest meeting in the local council’s history agreed around £15m in cuts for next year.

Council leaders praised the performance of staff and members after Thursday’s gruelling council budget setting meeting ran from 10am to 6.30pm.

Senior management has pledged to sit down with staff and unions to negotiate £2 million off the wages bill, “redoubling” their efforts to find common ground and avoid compulsory redundancies.

Chief executive Alistair Buchan said people should not underestimate the challenges ahead, saying there would be “setbacks” along the way, and it was too early to assess how many jobs would go as a direct result of Thursday’s decisions.

However he thought the community would be more willing to accept cuts in public services knowing the organisation was reducing the cost of running itself.

Councillors during a brief break in Thursday's council meeting. Pic. Shetland News

At Thursday’s meeting councillors agreed management efficiencies that should save £7.6 million next year, most of which will be recurring savings.

A further £7.4 million in service cuts were approved, with just four items being withdrawn from the original plan to save £8.7 million. The biggest one of these was £1 million to be saved on providing day care for the elderly in the isles’ care homes.

This matter will now be reviewed, along with a £300,000 saving on residential care; £80,025 on removing four neighbourhood support workers and community wardens; and £37,000 in grants to the local Befriending, Advocacy Shetland and family mediation charities.

Councillor Betty Fullerton, who chairs the children and families committee, won unanimous backing to change the council’s approach to save large sums on its schools budget.

Rather than stirring discontent by targeting individual schools for closure, as happened when Scalloway secondary and Uyeasound primary closed last year, the entire education service will be put under the microscope over the next six months to find £3 million.

Mrs Fullerton said “everything and anything is on the table”, looking at education from pre-school right through to adult further education.

“I think it’s a fairer way of doing things equitably, rather than picking off certain schools. At the end of the day we need to save £3million, and whether there is another way of doing it than closing schools will be on everybody’s lips,” she said.

One school which is still under threat is Olnafirth primary school, in Voe, which was on the chopping block until Scottish education secretary Mike Russell imposed a moratorium on rural school closures pending a review by the Commission on Rural Education.

Mrs Fullerton said the commission should have reported by August, helping the council make a decision on the best way forward.

The council’s outgoing finance chief Hazel Sutherland appeared pleased with the outcome of the meeting, saying that it had put the council on a good footing for its three year budget strategy.

The next stage will be to find at least a further £15 million to be lopped from the budget for 2013/14, a decision councillors have put off until a later date.

A small group of protesters outside the council chamber hoping to save Lerwick's Freefield Centre. They succeeded in having it moved into the ,long list of items under review. Pic. Shetland News

Senior councillors are desperate to restore their reserve funds built up over the past 35 years from hosting the oil industry at Sullom Voe back to £250 million over the next 10 years, after they fell in the past year to below £200 million.

Leader Josie Simpson said the council had no choice but to protect its reserves and praised staff for coming up with the savings package that members were able to debate and largely agree.

“We would have been walking away from our responsibilities if we had not made these decisions. If we don’t balance our spending with our reserves, we will have no capital to draw revenue from,” he said.

Local government unions have warned that the council is in danger of damaging the economy by cutting too far and too fast, and if necessary the reserves should be sacrificed.

But councillor Cecil Smith, who has chaired the group driving the current council improvement plan, said he had heard from several quarters that the community was starting to accept the need for change.

“They are not quite so frightened about it as they were,” he said.

Further pressure on council funds comes from the international markets on which the council’s cash is invested, with members acknowledging that “the Euro is a worry”.

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