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Council / ‘Try every possible angle’ to tackle planning staff shortage, councillor says

Shetland’s location pinpointed as a possible reason behind difficulty in recruiting

A COUNCILLOR has called for officials to explore more “innovative” ways of recruiting planning workers amid a shortage of staff in Shetland.

Shetland south member Robbie McGregor told a meeting of the council’s development committee on Tuesday that “we really have to try every possible angle” to get candidates to come forward for vacant posts.

Councillor Robbie McGregor.

The meeting heard Orkney Islands Council has had more success, with a recent planning recruitment drive attracting 40 applicants – leaving Shetland councillors pondering what they did differently.

There is currently a backlog of planning cases in Shetland, with a shortage of staff combined with a high workload. The council department recently announced it was temporarily cutting back some services to allow staff to tackle the work.

It is not a new issue, however, with the planning service bringing in consultants a few years ago to look at different ways of recruiting.

A report presented to the committee highlighted that there are vacancies for five planning officers and one technical assistant.

This comes at a time when there are a number of major developments that require a great deal of attention, such as the Viking Energy wind farm and the proposed Shetland Space Centre.

Following a question from North Isles member Alec Priest development director Neil Grant said recruitment was a national problem.

But he said “our location just exacerbates that issue”.

Planning manager Iain McDiarmid said he was not sure what peers in Orkney did differently to attract plenty of applicants, but he stressed it was unclear what the quality of the 40 candidates were.

Shetland Central member Moraig Lyall questioned whether the workload would still be able to be tackled effectively if the service was at full strength, and Grant said he was hopeful it would be.

He used the building standards team as an example, which had recruitment problems but is now enjoying a full workforce and is “absolutely able to cover the ground”.

McGregor asked whether the council could look “outside the boundaries of Scotland” to see if suitable candidates can be found.

He added that in the pharmacy profession there are also agencies which work on a no recruitment, no fee basis.

McDiarmid said in response that someone from Australia working in Canada was set to move to Shetland to work in the service, but that fell through.

In the current workforce one member of staff is working remotely from Ireland and elsewhere in the service there is someone working from Belgium.

SIC head of planning Iain McDiarmid. Photo: SIC

“We have been casting our net far and wide,” McDiarmid said.

He conceded, though, that a recruitment drive with the support of consultants a few years ago only resulted in the net equivalent of one or two posts being filled.

“Promote Shetland did a bit of work with us,” McDiarmid added.

“That’s something I suppose could be explored further.”

The planning manager also said while some may view Shetland as an “outpost” it is actually an area which has large and varied developments.

Shetland West member Theo Smith also questioned whether the council could look to send staff to university so they could be trained up.

McDiarmid said the planning service has been putting staff on distance learning courses for years, with two at the moment doing this.

He warned, however, that with some people on phased retirement a key problem with local staffing is the experience of employees and succession planning.

“Trainees need a great level of support from our management, and that’s very time consuming,” McDiarmid noted.

“We are struggling to get people at the other end of the career grade.”

Lerwick member John Fraser said he was surprised to hear that the council had not spoken to colleagues in Orkney over their recent recruitment drive.

He called officers to ask for this information and for councillors to get a seminar or report if results come back.

McDiarmid said he was happy to do this, although he suggested that it was also an issue for human resources too, while the meeting heard there was no guarantee Orkney would actually provide any information.

The discussion was concluded by Shetland West member Theo Smith stressing that the council has done its best to recruit and should be absolved of any criticism.

“In my time on the council I don’t think that the planning department or the HR department could have done much more, and we could say that the council as a whole could [not] have done much more to recruit staff to Shetland,” he said.

Smith backed up the suggestion that Shetland’s geography may have played against the process, although he felt the coronavirus situation could have encouraged more folk to move north.

“I would have thought that the pandemic…would attract people to come to stay in Shetland because it’s basically quite a safe place.”

Committee chairman Alastair Cooper agreed with Smith, saying “it’s not for the want of trying”.