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Council / Caution from councillor on vacancy savings

A WARNING has been made around Shetland Islands Council (SIC) relying on the “vacancy factor” to make savings.

Making cost savings from vacancies is a key part of the council’s budget in 2023/24, which requires every department to look at ways to save money.

But Lerwick South councillor Neil Pearson said he felt vacancies were a “sticking plaster” approach rather than true savings.

A report presented to a meeting of the SIC’s education and families committee on Monday stated that at quarter one of 2023/24, the children’s services directorate had met £665,000 of its savings target.

However, £1.1million of savings are still to be identified.

Nearly £400,000 of vacancy savings have been identified from a range of budgets including for schools, children’s social work and youth services.

Recruitment in certain areas has continued to be a challenge from the council, which sometimes means more expensive agency staff have to be brought in to plug the gap.

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In this year’s budget the aim is to alter how services are run rather than continue to fail to fill vacant posts – thereby creating some savings.

Lerwick South councillor Neil Pearson.

But Pearson said this had potential to fluctuate. “This should not be a saving that we should be relying on as a council,” he warned.

Pearson also expressed worry that this could potentially affect the delivery of statutory services.

Children’s services director Helen Budge said it was not realistic to think the council can fill all of its vacancies.

“We’ve always had a number of posts that have been vacant,” she said.

“I would say at the moment it’s worse than it has been previously, because we’re not able to fill a number of posts. And we’re not able to fill them for a lot of different reasons.”

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Budge said that for this year it “may feel like a sticking plaster approach, but we’re not going to be able to spend that money”.

She told the meeting that longer-term strategies could focus on “growing our own teachers”, for instance.

Committee chairman Davie Sandison said the issue has “ramifications across the whole council”.

But he warned that the alternative to making these savings from vacancies could be to reduce services or cut staff numbers.

Meanwhile Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall said it was “becoming clear that achieving an actual reduced spend is going to be very difficult” in this financial year.

Sandison, however, said it was encouraging that some reviews on potential savings have already been carried out.

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