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Election hopefuls facing tough financial task

SIC finance chief Jonathan Belford.

THE TWENTY two islanders who emerge victorious from this May’s council elections will face the task of cutting the SIC’s costs by around 4.5 per cent a year between now and 2022.

At the last full meeting of the current council at Shetland Museum on Wednesday, members heard finance chief Jonathan Belford present a medium term financial plan to guide the local authority through the next five years.

Spending will have to come down to £106 million amid pressures such as pay inflation for the SIC’s 2,000+ employees, pension increases, legislative changes and growing demand for social care.

The Scottish Government has also accelerated the rate at which it is reducing local government spending. Belford said that had made the spending climate “even more challenging than we thought it would be 18 months ago”.

Since 2010 the block grant has slumped by 20 per cent, from £95 million to around £80 million, and by 2020 it is expected to contribute only 70 per cent of the SIC’s overall budget, with 20 per cent coming from the council’s own resources and 10 per cent from council tax revenue. 

That said, the council’s per head spend of just under £5,000 makes it by far the best-resourced local authority in the country – around double the national average and comfortably higher than the comparable Orkney and Western Isles administrations.

SIC convener Malcolm Bell said councillors were leaving the local authority in a much healthier state than they found it.

Councillor George Smith said it was important that, when it comes to making further spending reductions, the council recognises it “doesn’t live and work in isolation”.

In unanimously agreeing the medium-term financial plan from 2016/17 to 2021/22, political leader Gary Robinson stressed that members were not tying the hands of the next administration.

“I’m absolutely clear that if the incoming council wants to change this, they can’t be bound by the decision of this council,” he said.

SIC convener Malcolm Bell said he felt this group of councillors was leaving the local authority in a “much better, more sustainable state than we found it”.

He highlighted achievements such as a brand new high school and hostel and a replacement Eric Gray centre, all of which will “benefit service users throughout Shetland for decades”.

Those have been delivered against a backdrop of “the most sustained and savage budget cuts imposed by central government post-war”.

Bell also stressed the importance of resolving the council’s historic housing debt through “dogged and careful negotiation with both Westminster and Holyrood” to protect tenants from what would otherwise have been “terrible rent rises”.

He added that balancing the books had ensured that the next council will start life in a much healthier position than this one inherited in 2012.

“I wouldn’t quite say we found the patient dead on arrival, but it was certainly in intensive care and the prospects weren’t good,” he said, adding the metaphorical patient was now “home recuperating and building strength ready to face the fresh challenges”.

“We have adopted and followed a sound constitution and model of governance,” Bell continued. “Far from being a national laughing stock, we’re now held up as an example of how a good council does business.”

He thanked officials for their hard work and offered members – whether they are seeking re-election or not – his best wishes. Councillor Vaila Wishart paid tribute to Bell for “being such an excellent convener”.