OUTGOING Shetland Islands Council leader Cecil Smith says “a lot of good things” have come out of his time as a council member – and maintains that “personal reasons”, rather than political fallouts, were behind his decision to step aside.
The veteran councillor announced on Tuesday that he was relinquishing the position after nine months in charge following weeks of unrest behind the scenes over the ferry funding deal the SIC secured from the Scottish Government.
SIC deputy leader Steven Coutts will take on the senior post in the interim, with council convener Malcolm Bell expected to wait until a meeting in early May before asking members to appoint a permanent replacement.
Smith spoke openly and amiably to journalists after overseeing his final meeting as leader – he will continue to serve as councillor in his Lerwick South ward – on Wednesday afternoon.
Asked what had prompted yesterday’s decision, he replied: “I suppose there’s been the issues of the ferry funding – I’m sure you’re aware of that – and there’s not been any huge fallout among members.
“We have our differences of opinion – that happens in politics every day, not only in Shetland Islands Council but wider afield, and I’ve stepped down for personal reasons. It’s nothing to do with a fallout with members, there’s been nothing of that.”
Smith had regular disagreements with environment and transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson in particular during recent months. Those were heightened when Smith accepted an offer of £5 million from Scottish finance minister Derek Mackay to plug the local authority’s ferry funding gap.
The SIC had been seeking £7.5 million and, while Orkney Islands Council received the full £5.5 million it had been after, some members were irked that Smith accepted a lesser amount without consulting other senior councillors – while there were more general criticisms of his leadership style too.
The way the ferry negotiations played out was also known to have frustrated Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, though both he and Thomson were magnanimous in publicly praising Smith following Tuesday’s announcement.
Speaking in a measured and fairly relaxed manner at his soon-to-be-vacated Lystina House office, Smith said that when he took the role on following last year’s council elections he was “quite sure in my own mind that I wouldn’t do it for five years”.
Reflecting on almost 11 years as a councillor, he said he had “always worked for the benefit of the Shetland community and the folk”. The former police officer is in particular proud of the role he played in ensuring the new Eric Gray care centre – currently nearing completion at Seafield – would come to pass.
He has also been involved at a time when the council has got to grips with its spendthrift habits of old. Yesterday members heard that the council’s oil reserves are now worth around £365 million – a far cry from just a few years ago when questions were being asked about whether a £250 million minimum floor was achievable.
“In 2010, I said we had to stop spending so much of our reserves and get our house in order,” Smith said.
“In 2012 when I came back in, I spoke to the convener and instigated the committee that recovered £20 million [in housing debt owed to the SIC by the government], following on from my friend the Flea [councillor Allison Duncan] who accosted the chancellor at Inverness Airport, which was a good result.
“In my time in leadership there has been some positive things. We’ve completed a new high school, we’ve set a new budget for 2018/19… appointed a new chief executive, we’ve got some money [towards ferry services] from the Scottish Government and are still open to negotiations with them.
“One of the highlights of my 11 years in the council is that I’ve had the stamina to challenge the decision not to hold back the hockey field when it had been set aside for the new Eric Gray, seconded by the Flea, and you see what we have out the road.
“The families are all very happy that they’re getting a new building – I am proud that I was the one who got that to where it is, so there’s been a lot of good things. Officers have been speaking to me today and reminding me of that.”
Smith said he would continue to be a member of the licensing board and planning committee, and was here to offer advice to “any members, new or old” who wish to draw on his experience.
He advised anyone thinking of putting their name forward to replace him to recognise that it is “something that’s going to take a lot of time”.
“When you become leader you become the chair of several other committees automatically, and sit on other forums and committees, and you need to be prepared to do it all. Anyone can do it if they put their mind to it and can take the flak [both within and outwith the council] that goes with it.”
A seemingly relieved Smith, who is looking forward to a pre-planned holiday in Inverurie at the end of the week, finished the cordial interview by warning that – while the council’s reserves are currently in good health – the stock exchange “can go down as fast as it can go up”.
He reiterated what has been a consistent mantra throughout his short tenure as leader: “I would never use our reserves to top up something the Scottish Government should be giving us money for.”