SNP - Tom Wills

Live: SIC budget cuts

SHETLAND Islands Council has just sat down to debate its proposals to impose £12.5 million cuts to its budget, representing roughly 10 per cent of the council’s entire budget. Shetland News is reporting live from the council chamber.

1.49pm – All that remains is to approve the overall budget, agree to freeze council tax, and agree to maintain the 10% second home property tax discount. The only change is to the community council budgets.

G Cleaver asks J Gray, asks the figure for the second homes property discount. Gray says it generates about £110,000 a year, so the 10% discount is about £10 to £15,000.

And that’s it. Robinson thanks all the executive directors and staff for the tremendous and unprecedented amount of work into putting this budget together, especially James Gray and the finance team. He thinks this is a very good budget for Shetland that takes the council 70 per cent of the way toards its savings traget. The fact that it has been agreed is testament to how far the council has come since the previous council.

Bell continues by thanking all the members for the spirit of the debate.

So that’s it – the only change agreed today is the cut to community councils remains at 30%, but has been ring fenced for special projects. Community councils will be competing with each other for about £68,000 in the year ahead.

1.43pm – Robinson presents the Shetland College board report, chairman D Ratter seconds. He now raises concerns that nothing will be done to undermine plans for tertiary education that are ongoing and seeks assurances on that front.

Development director N Grant explains the total budget is £3.4m with £400,000 from the SIC. The plan is to reduce that to £300,000, and they have identified internal efficiency savings that amount to £250,000 that could provide a surplus. Ratter is content.

S Coutts asks about the review that Ratter mentioned. Grant says he can’t talk about the details but it is close to starting.

Cooper asks if the £250,000 saving is an issue for the college and not the council. Grant says yes, the council will save £100,000 and no more. Ratter explains that Shetland and Orkney are the only two in Scotland run by the local council.

No debate, cuts are agreed.

1.37pm – Back to work. Robinson now presents the harbour board report, which includes the 30% increase in harbour charges and the rates for landing farmed fish. Chairwoman A Manson seconds.

There are no questions, no one argues. The motion is passed. Everyone is stunned.

1.18pm – C Smith says we are getting completely carried away with this. He thinks that communities are expecting change and are preparing for change and we shouldnt’ be getting bogged down in this debate.

Summing up, G Smith says he agrees with everything Stout said. This is about moving to an effective scheme for the collection of bulky waste, but his amendment is about being prepared for the change and he does not believe the scheme stands up to scrutiny. What is a bulky item, what if a bulky item is left at the kerbside, what will the volume be? Too many things have not been thought through and until we have a scheme everyone understands we should wait, no more than one (six week) cycle.

Robinson says they know there have been difficulties in the western isles operating a skip service. Every other authority has put a bulky uplift service in place, communities are prepared for this change and asks for the SIC to “get ahead and just do this”.

Cooper warns about going against legal advice about health safety, but is told it is too late to raise this.

Vote: G Smith gets four backers, while Robinson gets 16. The community skips are going!

Another comfort break until 1.30pm.

1.11pm – Now to the debate, Fox warns that if fly tipping increases it will be bad for Shetland’s image and asks for the changes to be kept under review. Robinson and A Wishart agree to include that in their motion. The community skips changes will be kept under review.

G Smith asks for the bulky uplift scheme to be deferred as it has not been worked out thoroughly enough. It’s important to get this right as it’s quite important to Shetland folk and there is potential reputational damage.

Boden asks if that means the £104,000 savings would be lost. G Smith says a report could come forward quickly so all that saving might not be lost.

M Stout talks about fly tipping – he says this is an opportunity to point out that we have an environment we can be proud of, we have done our fair share of puting things over the banks (him included) but to think that will start again is a terrible indictment of our society. He is content that there are many downsides to the existing service. Skips were not much use to people who had not transport or elderly. On Bressay they weren’t much use unless you reached the new skip within 10 minutes.

This an opportunity for people to help ach other, taking stuff into town for each other. This is an opportunity for positive change.

1.04pm – The question of health & safety has come up, with Crossland saying that professional advice says that it is unsafe to maintain the current community skip service.

M Burgess asks about the cost of the bulky uplift service if the charge was removed. Crossland says he will have to figure that out as it is complicated.

A Manson says the SIC had been expecting a large income from commercial waste, which she thinks will not materialise.

Cooper asks if the SIC has assumed it will get in extra income from commercial waste. Crossland that assumption has not been made.

12.56pm – A Cooper asks if the council is making money from recycling scrap metal and if that would continue under a bulky uplift scheme. Yes to both, he is told.

On toilets, Cooper is very pro-charging and concerned about the impact the loss of toilets would have on the tourism industry. He tells a story of how he was on holiday in Italy and paid 80 cents (about 60p) to have a pee and at the time would probably have paid a fiver! However, Crossland says, there are isues about the cost of putting in charging machines.

12.50pm – On to Viking bus station A Manson says the SIC needs to find creative ways of keeping it open as it is so important for people living in rural areas. She also asks if the rates the bus station pays are being looked at? Crossland says the rates are being looked at and creative approaches, such as introducing vending machines (presumably to make an income) are also being examined.

12.47pm – Back to toilets. Westlake asks if anyone masures how much they are used, as happens with road counters, and has any thought gone into charging for their use. Crossland says they have looked at charging, but not gone with it, and it is difficult to count how well used there are. He says they have been surprised at the level of interest in taking over the running of community toilets.

Westlake says she is aware closure of some Lerwick toilets has put pressure on other toilets, such as the the one by the children’s playpark. She does not think this is a good thing.

Also about Lerwick, P Campbell is back onto skips. What will be the cost of informing the public that this is going to happen. Crossland says they will use the SIC website, there will be information leaflets and community councils will be informed. The comunications department will be used, so there will be minimal cost.

Campbell does not think this is enough, but A Wishart says everyone should be aware of it with the level of reporting it has received.

Campbell asks if community groups take over a waste service, would they pay the same as commercial waste operators. Crossland said this would have to be looked into.

12.38am – Shetland West member Frank Robertson is given an assurance that if no local group can be found to take on the public toilet in their area, toilets will not automatically close before the matter comes back to the committee. A Manson has also said outlying areas are losing more public toilets than the central area.

Fox says he thinks the loss of community skips is too definitive and asks for a roving skip to be introduced. He says the community is receiving mixed messages about how imminent the loss of the skips will be.

Crossland has said they have been looking at other options, such as putting skips on council land or manning them with volunteers, but it would be more expensive and a worse service. He stresses again bulky uplift is done elsewhere in the country.

Fox retorts that in the western isles they lost community skips, but now community councils have taken over supervision of skips in some areas. Has that been looked at, he asks.

Crossland says they have looked at the western isles, they are locked apart from two hours on Wednesday and two hours on Saturday. Lots of limitations, he lists all the things that can’t go in them (a very long list) and would need a licence from SEPA, but the council is willing to look into it. But his recommendation remains bulky uplift, which could pick up things that can’t go in the western isles skips.

Fox says he thinks a roving skip would be useful alongside the bulky uplift service. A Wishart says it will have to remain under review, especially as this is causing such concern in communities.

12.30pm – Shetland North member Andrea Manson asks if the bulky uplift service will pay for itself. Crossland says that skips cost £127,000, bulky uplift service will cost £23,000. He says that it is a workable solution to the problem of an expensive skip service. The new service is just like those being provided elsewhere in the country, and everything is in place to make the change from 1 April.

Cooper is concerned about six weekly cycles – skips in Delting receive significant volumes. If they are deployed on Thursday you are lucky to get anything in on Friday and there will need to be more than six weekly uplifts, otherwise there will be fly tipping.

Crossland says they have looked at the volumes involved and it is envisgaed that the six weekly cycle for “appropriate waste” will be sufficient. Cooper says much waste comes from council tenants moving in a “very fluid community”. Will council properties be done by bulky uplift or done by housing? It will be done by housing, Crossland says.

A Wishart talks about fly tipping – he thnks people knowledge of environment has changed and he doesn’t believe there will be an increase in that.

12.22pm – A Wishart says there will need to be common sense and trust in Crossland in his team. Henderson repeats the question about how big is bulky waste. Wishart suggests a wardrobe or a desk would probably be the limit.

Sandison asks if there is a role for the commercial sector to get involved. Wishart says there is also a safety issue with dangerous items being placed in skips, such as pressurised containers.

Crossland says there is no plan to put service out to tender, but it is something that could be considered for the future. But the current proposal is to do it with in house staff.

Bell says he has had talks with a community association about providing such a service.

12.17pm – Robinson proposes the environment and transport committee, with an amendment to keep the Viking bus station open for the time for now. A new bulky uplift service charging £30 for six items to replace community skips, and an increase charges for Tingwall airport to pay for accommodating the air ambulance service.

Committee chairman Allan Wishart seconds Robinson, making one request: for Duncan not to bring up the Tingwall airport review.

Theo Smith seeks clarification of the bulky uplift service – infrastructure director Phil Crossland says it will be like much of the rest of the country. You phone in your request, waste must be out by 8am and roughly every six weeks there should be a rotating collection service on the day the general waste is collected.

Duncan asks for an update on Viking bus statin. Crossland says drawing together proposals to apply for a change of use planning permission prior to going out to the market. Meanwhile there is no change.

Fox gives notice of an amendment.

Henderson asks if a three piece suite would class as three items. Crossland would need to seek clarification, but thinks it would be three. Coutts asks for definition of a bulky item. Anything that can’t go in a black bag or the essy kert.

Burgess says devil is in the detail. Coming from a vilage full of trees, if an elderly person does a lot of tree felling and dumps branches on the street how many items would that be. Message coming across is there will need to be some refinement of this. Crossland agrees there will be a process of “bedding in” and garden waste would need to be containerised.

12am – Duncan pays tribute to the work of Disability Shetland.

Summing up, Wills says it’s not a free childminding service. He is saddened by comments people have made, “fostering a culture of dependence”, “stigmatisation”, some people might find that offensive.

People are trying to come up with alternatives, but it’s not good enough and people are too stressed trying to come up with answers. People don’t have an alternative solution. “Deary, deary me,” he says several times.

Robinson sums up commending V Wishart’s comments. He says she is right, there is a requirement for ASN provision to be inclusive, ASN children should be mainstream. The provision SIC gices to ASN is out of kilter with other authorities, it’s far higher. He can’t accept putting aside the entire £83,000 budget. Previously there had been a 15% increase, he is not unsympathetic but can’t accept Wills proposal.

Vote: Wills gets eight; Robinson gets 13. The ASN holiday club loses its money. “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” Wills mutters.

Now there is a five minute comfort break. Phew!

11.51am – Duncan vehemently seconds Wills. Westlake completely agrees and whoever proposed deleting this budget had no idea what they are doing. These are the most vulnerable people in the community.

V Wishart says there are a few things she does not agree with. Respite care is provided by shortbreak care. The holiday club was not supposed to be a free babysitting service. She has been to meetings about thsi, parents have been receiving advice from SIC staff and Disability Shetland. The purpose is to introduce people with disabilities more into the mainstream, reducing stigmatisation. This scheme is exclusive and does not help children access mainstream services.

This is a holiday club, not a respite service and alternatives are being organised by the education and families department. 

Ratter supports V Wishart and all the work they have done to save money and in difficult times we must not forget underlying principles, but he is inclined to support Wills. His concerns are too grave to do otherwise.

Cleaver says Wills was passionate and eloquent, but V Wishart has put forward a reasoned answer. For him, Wills has created a situation where they are arguing against Christmas and apple pie….and he is going to have a go.

Work is being done by the affected families. Is that not what the council wants – to get people to work out their own solutions? Alternative suggestions for funding sounded like a wish list, and one gain would be another loss. But with the work that is being done there is a possibility of a good outcome, and that will stop if the money is provided again.

11.41am – Now we move to education and families committee, chairwoman Vaila Wishart says the proposals have been fully discussed and should be supported.

George Smith asks Gray what percentage of total spend on education is compared to Edinburgh where they spend 60% per pupil of what Shetland spends. Secondary schol pupils cost £12,000 each, the most expensive in Scotland. Next comes Orkney, which spends £3,000 less. Shetland is second highest in Scotland.

G Smith questions the figures, Gray says different councils put different services in different budgets so it is dificult to compare like with like. Cost per pupil is a far more reliable comparison, he says, and on that Shetland comes out on top.

Wills moves an amendment for the council to reinstate the budget for the holiday club for children with additional support needs to the current year’s level. He says the council wants to cut service and save £82,000 a year.

It was one of the meanest things the last council did, it picked on some of the most vulnerable people in the community. This council has the chance to make it right. Staff and outside organisations are trying to help, but there is not enough money to employ staff so parents who needed the respite have to volunteer to keep service going, and to ad insult to injury they have to pay for what has been free. One mother said she was dreading the summer holidays and didn’t know how she would cope.

The reason for strating ther playscheme was because so many parents couldn’t cope – on top of the emotional and physical exhaustion, they have less time for other children so the siblings lose quality time with their parents. Without the playscheme they can’t take their other kids to the beach or the Clickimin. This is called social exclusion, which is against council policy.

£82,000 is 0.2% of the education and families budget. Could it come from the loan scheme for businesses or the money that hasn’t spent on gritting, and there is a contingencies budget. The money can be found, so he moves the funding is restored.

11.30am – Lerwick South member Peter Campbell says Promote Shetland provides an “outstanding service” with very few staff. Fellow Lerwick member Amanda Westlake agress and says more targeted marketing is needed.

Ratter missed the amendment while he was out for a pee. Much laughter. He also comes out in support of Promote Shetland, “an entirely admirable organisation” and to withdraw funding would be “remiss”.

Fox says Coutts is proposing an inflationary rate increase. He says they are a hard working team and he has great respect for them, but feels £398,000 is too much. Social media allows a lot can be done for very little. The Shetland pony “joopies” went viral across the globe for a marketing budget of £1,000.

Flea says he is the only councillor today promoting Shetland in his Fair Isle jumper. Wills suggest Sheltieburgers on the side of Tesco vans could be next.

Coutts sums up. He fully supports Promote Shetland and the fault lies with SIC who need to prioritise what it does. He is proposing an inflationary increase to the PS budget at a time when cuts are being brought in throughout the islands.

Robinson sums up, saying the total budget in this area has been reduced. The PS contract is put out to tender and gives the best price. We need to focus on promoting Shetland, PS has been “the shop front for Shetland”, they have an excellent website which you can’t put a price on. PS are linchpin of socia; media in Shetland through Facebook and Twitter. It’s absolutelly essential to keep Shetland’s shop window open.

Vote: Coutts gets three; Robinson gets 16. Promote Shetland gets its money!

11.20am – Now to the development committee. Chairman Alastair Cooper says the only issue of uncertainty surrounds Promote Shetland, which will go back to the committee on 8 March. A report will ask for a release of funds on a yearly basis along with an idea of what is expected of the organisation, which will make provide a long term future. The money will only be released on 8 March with whatever conditions the committee makes on it.

Coutts says he has an amendment. There is a £394,000 budget for Promote Shetland, which he wants to reduce to £340,000. He says they had a valuation report on PS, which recommended the need to tighten up when it had a budget of £305,000 and now we are looking at a 20% increase. He is reluctant to support anything more than an inflationary rate increase.

Cooper invites Neil Grant to comment on the reduction in the SIC’s own marketing budget. Grant says marketing work is very important. Last year £700,000 was spent on Promote Shetland and SIC marketing. There will only be £80,000 budget for SIC marketing, meaning a considerable overall reduction.

Wills is concerned about criticism of Promote Sheland, which he thinks is “a huge success” and they are achieving the SIC’s marketing strategy wioth a staff of just two, down from three. Funding should be concentrated on Promote Shetland rather than SIC marketing because they are so effective. It’s not all success, there might be a few flops, but this organisation has created an enormous amount of good will for Shetland and plays an essential part in attracting more people and investment.

Cooper said the development committee had isues in the way the PS contract was being measured, and this is what needs to be addressed on 8 March and asks councillors to accept that promotion and marketing will be reviewed later on in the summer.

11.10am – Now social services committee chairman Cecil Smith presents, or rather moves the recommendations for a £27 million budget covering a wide range of services from community care to housing.

One concern is the impact of the housing debt which could see council house rents go up more than 5% in the future. Also concern about losing the free day care service.

Wills is asking for an accurate estimate of the council house rent rise if the housing debt is not sorted out. C Smith suggest 13%. Gray says the rise depends of different factors, so he thinks the 13% is if the debt is maintained “in house”.

Burgess says the community needs to know that day care will be there, but not in its current form. Cecil Smith says that there will be a consultation about the cuts, but there will be pain.

Cooper says he knows there are elderly people willing to pay for day care, C Smith says that has made his day.

Stout says it is just as important to remove uncertainty. The committee cuts are moved without objection.

11.01am – Sandison says this getting too confusing, says the waters are getting muddied and calls for a report to the council on Fox’s suggestion. Community councils “need certainty”.

Shetland West member Steven Coutts says we need to devolve to communities, he is worried about staff time involved in assessing “ring fencing” and therefore reluctant to support Fox.

Burgess suggests ring fencing the 15% left after a 15% cut. Fox says that is splitting hairs and doesn’t get away from Coutts’ concern about staff time.

Summing up, Fox says his concern is there is a definite element of money being “divested” at the end of the financial year not for the best of the community. He could give examples. This ring fencing could help community councils and community development companies work together.

Duncan can’t accept the extra bureaucracy or the 30% cut.

Vote: Fox gets 10, while Duncan gets 10. A split vote – Bell has the casting vote so supports Fox’s amendment. The 30% cut stands but is ring fenced. MOre work for the officers.

10.54am – Now Fox introduces his amendment. That the 30% cut is maintained, but ring fenced as grants for community councils. He would be willing to open it to community development companies if he could be persuaded that is fair. Ratter supports him and says community develpment companies have had funding removed despite, in Northmavine, bringing in £700,000 to the local economy.

Fox says projects would have to be defined. In the long run we have to revisit how we run and finance our community councils.

George Smith warns against trying to micro-manage community councils. This amendment is doing what “we are trying to get away from” and we should trust community councils and not meddle with their affairs.

Wills agrees – we don’t want to give money to people that don’t fit our overall plan. He doesn’t think they are. “An awful lot of good is done at a very small scale all helped by community councils and this is takiing micro management too far.”

Ratter speaks up for community development companies. Bluemull is already closing its doors – need to support organisations that can be “light of foot”. NCDC has already approached the SIC about a cheaper way of providing community skips. They have had their funding cut altogether and NCDC will cease to operate within next few years unless it can find money to run itself. They should be treated equally and are not at the moment.

10.46am – Shetland Central member Mark Burgess says we should be supporting community councils if we are moving more towards community planning.

Duncan repeats amendment – reduce the cut to 15% next year with no further cut for two years. Summing up he agrees we need youth coming forward to run community councils. He recently saw a young person come on a community council and it was “like a breath of fresh air”.

Robinson speaks: communit councils across Scotland have hundreds to spend. Ours have trouble spending thousands. He does not believe community councillors will leave in their droves. He did not think about the budget available when he was a young community councillor. The cuts will not leave them with just enough to pay clerks, and they will still be well funded and if community councils have proposals the door is open for them to be considered.

Vote: Duncan gets 12; Robinson gets 8. The community council cut will be 15%.

10.40am – Shetland Central member says community councils are a soft target and if we are going to ask more of the community councils we should be supporting them and a 30% cut would be barely enough to pay for a clerk, which “a cut too far”. But the problem is that community councils will always be seen as a low priority.

Lerwick North member Michael Stout says the message has gone out to community councils that the SIC has to look at the value of what they do, and there are examples of great value being achieved. Perhaps the issue is not the amount of money, but the value for money.

Robinson asks if Duncan will accept everything else in the executive committee report. He says yes.

10.34am – George Smith says that in a £100 million budget surely we could find £30,000 savings to affirm the council’s commitment to decentralisation and to a whole range of local volunteers. Do we want to compare ourselves to the rest of Scotland where the average spend per community council is £500, when there are so many moribund community councils around the country. We need to support them in Shetland.

Shetland North member Alastair Cooper says how the funding has helped community groups, helped keep roads to elderly folks houses up, etc. There are some things perhaps that should not be funded, but there are varying qualities of local provision, but he believes community councils fill a useful community perpsective the council should not throw away.

North isles member Gary Cleaver supports George Smith. He sits on five community councils and they are really inspiring, unpaid people going an extra mile every time they meet. Others may not engage at the same level and maybe the council could assist underperforming community councils to deliver “above and beyond”, which is what we want.

I don’t know if funding reduction is being used as a stick and might do more damage than good, and might make it harder to get people coming forward, especially young people. He is attracted to “Billy’s proposal to have it ring fenced”.

10.27am – Political leader Gary Robinson introduces the executive committee report from last Thursday. Shetland College board chairman Drew Ratter says it is “slightly anomolous” that college and harbour board reports are presented to the executive, without the chairs of those boards being on the executive committee.

Convener Malcolm Bell asks for questions on the report – there are none. Robinson moves the report.

The debate begins with Shetland South member Allison “Flea” Duncan who wants to talk about community councils, and puts forward an amendment: he says he has been told by community councils that a 30% cut is too draconian. Some are unable to fill all the seats, and are being sought to help with providing council services as volunteers. Draconian cuts won’t encourage that, and some councillors are saying this will be their last term as having suffered 50% cuts already it’s not worth turning up.

He proposes the cut is reduced to 15% so that community councils can plan ahead so that status quo remains for the next two years. Fellow Shetland South member George Smith seconds.

Billy Fox, the third Shetland South member, says the cut was £60,000. He says the money could be ring fenced for community councils to spend on specific projects.

Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills feels as strongly as Duncan – community councils have been hit hard and this is a reasonable compromise. Shetland North member Drew Ratter support the 30% cut, saying what communti councils do is too undefined with massive budgets and no clear idea what they are supposed to do and says community development companies should be able to access that £60,000 if it was ring fenced.

10.17am – North isles member Robert Henderson is questioning Gray about the way budgets are divided between revenue and capital – saying Gray has misled community councils by suggesting they could have rock armouring at the Cullivoe bridge or have the roads gritted. He tries to say how important tha b ridge is to the Shetland economy, but is told the meeting must move on.

10.14am – Finance chief James Gray is addressing the councillors, outlining the level of savings the council needs to achieve – £38 mllion over five years. If the spending was not achieved through this medium term financial plan the council would have no money left by 2018. This is a managed approach.

This budget requires a draw of £27.7 million. Orkney has just set a budget of £80 million, around 45 per cent less than the SIC. “We are still spending an awful lot of money.”

The biggest cuts are in development and corporate services, they are not equal across the board. If these savings are agreed it will be 70 per cent of the way towards financial sustainability. This will also be the sixth year the council tax will be frozen, leaving Shetland with the fourth lowest council tax with the best funded services in Scotland.

£2.2 million is being “spent to save”, and £3 million will be available to support local businesses through loans.

Harbour charges are being increased by 30% after trying to identify savings in the harbour, and the housing budget is “unsustainable” until the housing debt is sorted out.

Capital spending still amounts to £75 million over five years, still a lot, but more targetted. Anderson High School accounts for 36%.

“What is in front of you today is absolutely achieveable and will put this council on a firm financial footing for the future.”

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