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Council / SIC leader calls for ‘honesty’ over what projects council can deliver

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

THE COUNCIL needs to be “honest” with the community about what projects it may or may not be able to deliver amid financial challenges, according to leader Emma Macdonald.

Her comments came as elected members discussed Shetland Islands Council’s change programme, which brings together a series of proposed projects.

But there was a strong feeling among members of the policy and resources committee on Monday that the long list needs to be prioritised.

Depute leader Gary Robinson said: “I think there really is a need for more focus here on what the priorities really are.”

He added that some departments are under such high workloads that they are struggling to put detail behind the projects.

“That says to me there isn’t the capacity to deliver this change programme, even if we wanted to,” Robinson said, before calling for “rationalisation” of the projects.

The list of projects stems from the council’s Our Ambition document, which provides strategic political direction through to 2026 and has the tag line of “working together for a positive and sustainable future”.

But council leader Emma Macdonald said she felt there was a perception in the community that the SIC was able to do everything in Our Ambition.

“I suppose my concern would be how do we ensure that the rest of the community are aware of the situation that we’re in,” she said.

“I think we need to be realistic with the community about what we can and can’t deliver on.

“At the moment everybody is facing challenges within their own households, but as a council we are not excluded from that. I think we need to be honest with the community about what is achievable and what is deliverable.”

Robinson added that Our Ambition – which was put in place in 2021 – was written in a “different time from where we’re at today” and would benefit from being looked at again.

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Corporate services director Christine Ferguson told Monday’s meeting that the change programme is a “facilitator”, with the main work instead undertaken by departments and committees.

The change programme itself is described as a “key enabler” for Our Ambition, and the delivery plan brings together a list of change projects to ensure consistent reporting.

The list of priority actions is lengthy, covering just about every corner of the council, from education and transport to connectivity and social care.

Shetland West member Liz Peterson said she felt some of the list seemed like usual activity – but Ferguson said projects which feature “investment or disinvestment decisions” are included.

At the same meeting councillors were told the SIC is projecting an overspend of £6 million in 2022/23 on core service delivery, and after capital underspends are included the total stands at around £2.6 million.

Elected members were also advised the value of the council’s investments had dropped by more than £30 million in the first six months of the financial year, resting at £379 million at the end of September.

Many of the programmes and projects in the change programme delivery plan do not have detailed timelines, plans or resources in place at the moment.

Council officials have previously warned that projects which have already been given the green light will need to be prioritised amid the funding challenges.

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison said at Monday’s meeting that he felt a “reality reset” was needed on the change programme delivery plan, particularly in light of the critical best value audit report from the Account Commission which expressed concern over financial sustainability.

But he said SIC officials need further guidance and direction from councillors.

There was, however, praise in the council chamber for the work already undertaken by change programme staff, including completing the merger of Shetland’s college sector.

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