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Council / SIC budget given ‘sticking plaster’ description as call made for further in-year savings

Reserves not a ‘rainy day fund’ but an ‘everyday fund’ – Sandison

THE PROPOSED Shetland Islands Council budget for the next financial year has been described as a “short-term sticking plaster” – with concerns raised over the bigger picture.

At a meeting on Monday morning education and families committee chairman Davie Sandison said more should be done in-year to tackle the reliance on unsustainable draws from reserves to balance the books.

He received support from his colleagues to call on Shetland Islands Council to look at setting a further one per cent saving target across the local authority during the course of the financial year – although it remains to be seen whether this will ultimately be taken forward.

Davie Sandson. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Sandison also stressed the importance of engagement with the community.

The committee was the first to discuss budgets for 2023/24, which comes against what has been described as a significant financial challenge for the council.

The proposed budget for the entire council, which is being decided this week, includes a £4.8 million draw from reserves which is deemed to be unsustainable.

Savings of nearly £7 million have been identified across all departments, some of which are not immediate and will initially be the subject of reviews.

The proposed budget for the services overseen by the education and families committee stands to be around £57.2 million, which includes savings of £1.1 million. This is an increase of £1.2 million on the revised budget for 2022/23.

There are also other proposed savings of £343,000 for 2023/24, which includes moving to maximum class sizes in all primary settings.

There is also set to be a review of swimming tuition as part of the PE curriculum in schools.

Councillors on the education and families committee were aligned with Sandison’s call for the SIC to do more to tackle the unsustainable draw on reserves.

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Lerwick South member Neil Pearson said the council is going to have to be “cut throat” in the future – with Shetland Central member Catherine Hughson adding that members may have to “bite the bullet” in some instances.

But the council’s plan to transfer all of the anticipated £18.2 million surplus from the harbour board account – which includes income from oil tankers berthing at Sullom Voe – to fund general services in 2023/24 drew further concern from councillors.

Depute leader Bryan Peterson likened it to the “elephant in the room”.

Regarding the reserves and how draws are continually needed to pay for general services and balance the books, Sandison said “it’s not a rainy day fund – it’s an everyday fund”.

Come decision time the committee approved the budget recommendations, which will need to be ratified by the full council, with the addition of Sandison’s call for the SIC to seek further in-year savings.

All council committees will discuss budgets this week before the full SIC sets things in stone on Wednesday.

The review of swimming being part of the curriculum, which could save £150,000 in 2023/24, drew particular discussion amongst councillors at Monday’s meeting.

Swimming classes are undertaken in a six-week blocks using Shetland Recreational Trust facilities.

Children’s services director Helen Budge told the meeting that when taking into account dryside activities too, the council pays the trust more than £500,000 a year for using its leisure centres and facilities.

She said providing PE is a statutory obligation, but offering swimming classes is not.

There are also swimming classes already on offer outside of school through the recreational trust, while there are other clubs and activities in Shetland too.

Lerwick councillor Neil Pearson: ‘swimming lessons an easy target?’

Councillor Pearson said he felt swimming tuition was an “easy target” given it was an “incredibly important activity” for people in Shetland.

Budge denied this, saying that “I don’t think any of these things we are suggesting are easy for any of us”.

“I understand your concerns,” Budge added, “but we have to do something.”

If the review concludes that swimming should be taken out of the curriculum, the expectation is that the changes would be in place for the next school year starting in August.

With the recreational trust funded by Shetland Charitable Trust (SCT), Pearson raised the suggestion that SCT’s funding policy could be re-examined in the “clear moment of financial need” so young people do not miss out.

Peterson meanwhile said on the same note there was a “fundamental question” amongst the SIC and other public bodies whether the council is the appropriate organisation to be providing certain non-statutory services.

A longer-term review which relates to the 2024/25 financial year is around the service level agreement the council has with NHS Shetland for speech and language therapy.

Budge said it would not be the case that the service would cease if the agreement was ended.

Inclusion manager Lesley Simpson highlighted that the service is also involved with providing autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

She stressed that all options which would stem from the review would come back to councillors for decision-making.

Reviews could also be undertaken on a “hub based model” for youth clubs, as well as maintenance requirements for play areas and multicourts.

Within the proposed 2023/24 budget in education there is an expected increased spend of nearly £380,000 on additional support needs staff due to extra demand.

There is also a proposed increased spend of £247,000 for secondary staff based on school roll numbers. The cost of delivering PE is also predicted to rise by £160,000.

Employee pay awards will rise, but finance manager Paul Fraser said the expectation is that the costs of this will be covered.

A key feature of savings in the council’s budget setting process this year is around job vacancies, amid a long-standing recruitment problem. The aim is to see whether vacancies do need to be filled or not.

Meanwhile in 2023/24 there is expected to be combined savings of nearly £550,000 through reductions in early learning and primary staff, based on current registrations and school rolls.

During Monday’s meeting Lerwick South and Bressay councillor Stephen Leask expressed disappointment that an externally funded emotional support officer post at Bell’s Brae Primary School will not be continued when its financial support runs out.

The charges for services under the education and families remit was also presented to councillors, with many set to increase by around five per cent. 

The largest percentage increase stands to be the cost of a meal for teachers and visitors in schools, which could double from £3.10 to £6.25.

Meanwhile for the current financial year, which ends at the start of April, the children’s services directorate is expected to be overspent by £361,000 – less than one per cent of its budget.

This received praise in the council chamber considering inflationary increases and rising costs.

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