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Minor SIC shake-up may see “a few tweaks”

The leader and his deputy. Gary Robinson and Billy Fox on the first day of their new working relationship steering the council through choppy waters. Photo Shetnews.

FOUR senior Shetland councillors have been removed from the helm of their committees in a minor shake-up within Scotland’s northernmost local authority.

Shetland Islands Council has also appointed a new deputy political leader to help with the growing workload as it tries to hold its course on cutting overall spending by around 20 per cent over five years.

One councillor accused a misdirected clique of new councillors of trying to undermine the stability of the council as it goes through a very challenging time.

However convener Malcolm Bell assured that the exercise was merely an opportunity to give newer members elected in 2012 an opportunity to gain experience in responsible positions.

On Wednesday afternoon Shetland South member Billy Fox, who stood against MSP Tavish Scott in the last Holyrood elections and chaired the anti-Viking Energy wind farm group Sustainable Shetland before his election to the SIC, was voted unopposed into the newly created position of deputy leader.

This followed a series of secret ballots in which four committee chairs and vice chairs were rearranged.

Lerwick North member Michael Stout was promoted from the vice chair of the powerful environment and transport committee to replace chairman Allan Wishart.

North Isles member Gary Cleaver has replaced Shetland South member Allison Duncan as vice chairman of the social services committee.

Lerwick South member Amanda Westlake replaces fellow Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills as vice chair of the audit committee.

And Shetland North member Drew Ratter was defeated by Lerwick South member Peter Campbell in the vote for the chair of Shetland College.

After the meeting it became clear that while there had been considerable discussion over a long period of time amongst councillors about the need for change, there is no plan to radically alter the council’s course of direction.

Allan Wishart had said two years ago that he intended to stand down as environment and transport chairman, but changed his mind two weeks ago when it was suggested the council might not stick to its savings targets.

“There have been some whispers in the background about slowing down the financial plan, but we have not got the option of a magic pot of money to make things better,” he said.

“I believe the majority of people in Shetland understand the importance of getting our books balanced so that we are completely solvent by 2017.”

Jonathan Wills suggested a clique of councillors had been planning these changes for more than a year, because they were getting “cold feet” about the scale of the cuts the council faces.

“I think this is a bad day for the council, not because I and others have been challenged, but because it challenges the council’s credibility,” he said.

Convener Malcolm Bell, himself newly elected in 2012, insisted there had always been a plan to review committee positions halfway through the council to give new members a chance to take on positions of leadership.

“We are still in the middle of a financial crisis that has not gone away and it is vital for the course of this council that we stick together on behalf of the community to bring ourselves through this crisis, though I am sure new senior members will come with new ideas,” he said.

Billy Fox said the council’s policy was not likely to change fundamentally, but there may be “a few tweaks” here and there.

The most controversial area of council policy remains proposals to close four secondary and five primary schools, with some councillors murmuring that the policy needs to change.

Gary Robinson said that the main area of concern was secondary education where costs per pupil have gone up by £1,000 per pupil in the past two years due to declining school rolls, at a time when secondary education costs already way outstrip the rest of the country.

He said that primary education was less of a concern as the costs per pupil were more in keeping with other island groups.

He added that the financial pressures on the council were not likely to diminish with the Scottish government indicating that the SIC’s annual grant could be as low as £77 million in two years, down from £91 million two years ago.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021