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Letters / Let’s work together

I am sorry that I seem to have ruffled Gary Robinson’s feathers with my recent article in Shetland News (There is always an alternative; SN 30/5/14).

That was not my intention, which was merely to point out that there are alternatives to the current educational proposals being advocated by Shetland Islands Council and that there are lessons to be learned from other parts of the Highlands and Islands.

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I did not mean to suggest that Argyll and Bute Council is in any way better than Shetlands Island Council. In fact I think the reverse is true.

I do not take issue with Gary’s right to defend the council position. As council leader I would expect him to do so. I am, however, disappointed at the manner in which he has chosen to do this.

Part of my disappointment is personal because on the few occasions where I have met Gary I have formed a liking for him. He is congenial and personable.

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Part of this is professional. I think he is doing a pretty good job in pursuing Shetland’s interests, not least in working together with other council leaders in the ‘Our Islands Our Future’ initiative.

Another part of my disappointment is in Gary’s grasp of finances. For example, quoting from Gary’s recent letter in the Shetland News (Preparing for financial hardship; SN 4/6/14) he says, “so even if every one of those 2,900 additional jobs resulted in someone building a house in Shetland we’d only receive an extra £2.3m.”

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Readers will be able to quickly and easily check this by going to the council’s website as I did. I would respectfully suggest to Gary that a newly built house would be in Band G with a value between £106,000 and £212,000. The council tax rate for that banding would be £1,755. When I plug these numbers into my calculator I get a total amount raised of £5,089,500 and not the £2.3m that Gary suggests.

On the matter of funding, Shetland has the highest funding (revenue and capital) per head of population of any local authority in Scotland at £3,709, more than double the national average of £1,818.

I could similarly go through Gary’s other figures but I have no wish to further embarrass him. I would make the point though, that this throws open a question that has been put to me by constituents, which is the reliability of the council’s projected savings from the educational reforms.

I do not yet have all the facts necessary to give a view on this but I think this is an area that requires further scrutiny. Intuitively it is difficult to see how the projected savings can be made but I will reserve judgement until I have more information.

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I am also disappointed that Gary is using the classic, but generally weak defence of ‘a big boy made me do it and ran away’. He blames John Swinney for the cuts when he knows that the Scottish government block grant is being severely cut by Westminster.

SIC also are attempting to blame the Scottish government for their proposed educational reform, suggesting that it is the only way they can implement Curriculum for Excellence.

Education Scotland does not dictate how local authorities implement Curriculum for Excellence in the manner which is being implied. If there is a good case to be made in favour of the educational reforms then the council should do so without attempting to hide behind the Scottish government.

My final area of disappointment is that Gary seems to suggest that there is a straight choice to be made between pursuing the reforms as proposed or in cutting services for older people.

Ironically this is what Argyll and Bute Council tried to do. Once again this was resisted strongly by the public and some councillors and an alternative route was found.

It is amazing what able council officers can do when councillors put them to the task. The finances of councils are more complex than Gary suggests and there are always clever ways to make savings just as there are ways to convince COSLA that their funding formula can be improved to deliver better outcomes for islands.

Despite my criticisms I would rather not continue the dialogue with Gary on this basis. If I have offended him then I sincerely apologise. What I would like to do is to work with him; to help him relate better to the very many parents and pupils who feel they have been let down by SIC, to pore over the figures with him and see if there are alternatives, to help him fight Shetland’s corner with COSLA and if necessary with the Scottish government.

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We should not forget that this debate is about maintaining the quality of Shetland’s education system. That is what my constituents are concerned about and that is what I am concerned about.

I make no apology if I am more optimistic than Gary is about Shetland’s prospects. It will take hard work and effort to bring this about and there will be challenges.

I am up for addressing these and I am sure that neither Gary nor I got into politics to become handmaidens to a dismal future.

I think we can do better than that, whilst accepting that along the way there might be difficult decisions to be made and occasions when we all have to compromise.

Mike Mackenzie
Highlands and islands MSP

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