Councillors bite back at government funding offer

South mainland member Allison Duncan likened the terms of the settlement to ‘political blackmail’.

Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts. Photo: Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council has spoken out against the Scottish Government’s provisional funding offer for the next financial year as it plans more talks with ministers.

Councillors were recommended to approve the indicative funding package – which amounted to a like-for-like drop in revenue funding of around 2.2 per cent on last year – when they met on Wednesday.

But a motion from leader Steven Coutts which was supported by his colleagues declined to accept the offer and instead merely noted the council’s disappointment at the proposed funding settlement.

It also instructed chief executive Maggie Sandison to write to the finance secretary over the “adverse impact” it will have on Shetland, as well as notifying local authority body COSLA of the council’s position.

Councillors were told that the funding offer amounted to £94.729 million, and they were warned that not accepting the settlement would led to a “revised” offer on reduced terms.

The Scottish Government expects councils to inform COSLA by Friday if they do not intend to accept their full funding package.

The core funding is vital to Shetland Islands Council being able to operate its services as it represents up to 70 per cent of its budget.

Members were aghast that the council’s ask for £7.9 million for running its inter-island ferries was not met in the government’s draft budget, with only last year’s sum of £5 million included – leaving a potential black hole of around £3 million.

The motion passed by the council will see Sandison and Coutts continue to pursue the full £7.9 million request before the government’s budget is approved in February.

Finance chief Jamie Manson said in his report that the council will be presented with “difficult choices” in the foreseeable future as it tackles an anticipated funding gap of around £15.6 million over the next five years.

That figure, however, included the presumption that the local authority would receive its full fair ferry funding request.

Coutts warned at the meeting that it is “clear our ability to provide essential services is under threat”.

Chairman of the environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson said while officers have engaged positively with Transport Scotland on ferry funding, the current position is “entirely unacceptable”.

Education and families committee chairman George Smith, meanwhile, suggested austerity had been used as a “political tool” by both the Scottish Government and Westminster.

He also said ring-fenced funding – such as the pupil equity fund which is calculated by the numbers of pupils between P1 and S3 receiving free school meals – has never worked well for Shetland.

Further vociferous criticism of the Scottish Government came from Lerwick councillor John Fraser, who said he felt being “held to ransom” by the finance secretary, while south mainland member Allison Duncan said ministers were engaging in “political blackmail” by threatening a reduced offer if the offer was not accepted.

Town councillor Amanda Hawick called the ferry funding offer “pathetic”, while Scalloway man Ian Scott said the proposed motion did not go far enough.

He also claimed Shetland “voted for austerity” by electing Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael as its MP, who the councillor said was the “chief cheerleader for the Tories in Scotland” when his party was in coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 general election.

It was left to Shetland’s sole party-affiliated councillor Robbie McGregor to defend the SNP government after the onslaught from his peers.

The south end councillor claimed the situation was “basically caused by Tory austerity policies”.

But as he is “always happy to put Shetland before my own party”, the SNP man said he would support Coutts’ motion.

Thomson, however, noted that the amount the Scottish Government has cut local government funding far outstripped in percentage terms the reduction in the money given to Scotland by Westminster.