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‘I would never have left anyone high and dry’: Orkney council’s outgoing chief executive reflects on extended stay in the islands

John Mundell
John Mundell at Inganess beach, Orkney. Image: Orkney Islands Council

In the past two weeks, Orkney council has seen an historic change of the guard, in terms of its chief executive job.

With Oliver Reid coming into post last week, the council finally found itself a new permanent chief executive.

This change sees the interim chief executive John Mundell stepping away from the isles council.

Mr Mundell’s time at the council was hugely extended past the four to six months he was brought on to cover, lasting through the global pandemic and for over three years in total.

Speaking less than 24 hours after officially finishing up his job, he reflected on his time in Orkney.

While it was indeed much longer than he planned, he says it was “a privilege”.

Mr Mundell was familiar with Orkney council before joining it in 2019. He explained that he had come up to help the council in 2017 and 2018 and had known the then-chief executive, Alistair Buchan as a peer.

Prior to this, he had been the chief executive at Inverclyde council retiring from being a permanent chief executive in 2016.

Wouldn’t have been in his nature to leave during the pandemic, says John Mundell

Asked how he felt about his extended stay at Orkney council he gave a glowing report.

He said: “To be honest, the fact I have been here much longer has been a privilege. I would never knowingly let anyone down, especially when you’re in the job I’ve been in.

“It wasn’t part of the plan. But it wasn’t the council’s plan either, to be fair. We were hit with the pandemic. So, that wasn’t really a time to leave.

“Nobody knew what was going to be happening with that at all and the outlook was very bleak. As a lifelong public servant, it’s just not in you to give up in these scenarios.

“You get your sleeves rolled up and get stuck in.

“I would never have left the council or the Orkney community high and dry.”

Kirkwall Harbour. Image: Steve Black/Shutterstock

He said Orkney had “got under his skin, in a good way” praising Orkney folk for “getting on and getting the job done”.

Upon leaving, he said he’d be taking a few weeks to rest and recharge but was also looking forward to some hard, physical work at his small farm in West Lothian.

He was asked about the challenges Orkney council faces.

He responded that the obvious main issue at the moment is the cost of living crisis, which is forcing the council to rely on the third sector more.

Orkney still challenged by its settlement from the government

But, in the long term, Orkney is still challenged by its settlement from the Scottish Government, he said, calling it “fundamentally wrong”.

John Mundell said: “The fairness of funding with the council’s financial settlement is an ongoing issue year-on-year.

“That created significant budget challenges, especially in relation to ferries in Orkney.

“It still doesn’t compute why Shetland, which has more or less the same population, are getting £360 more for every single person.

“The western isles have their ferries, both the operating costs and capital replacement costs, fully funded by the Scottish Government. They’re getting £700 more per head of population than Orkney.

“It’s not just unfair, it’s fundamentally wrong.

“As a small council, we run a ferry fleet, we’re the harbour authority, we run six airfields, and provide many more services than other mainland councils.

“And we still have to respond to the increased level of bureaucracy, coupled with increased direction from the Scottish government.”

He also pointed to the retention of staff at the council as another ongoing issue – one affecting councils across Scotland and the UK.

Asked about the council’s successes under his watch and its failures, John Mundell praised the way the council and the county’s businesses responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Hamnavoe House, Men’s Shed, and Bignold Park are points of pride

He said he was “immensely proud” of the way the council’s team responded during that time.

The recent islands deal, which he said initially consisted of a much smaller deal, was another boon for the county.

The opening of the Hamnavoe House care home, which took place shortly after he arrived, was another success, which he credits to the council he arrived to.

He also gave credit to the council leader and corporate director for the opening of the new men’s shed premises in Stromness.

A gate and fence on the edge of Bignold Park
Bignold Park in Kirkwall.

Getting a road installed in Bignold Park, Kirkwall, was another proud moment for John Mundell.

As for what didn’t go so well, nothing came to mind.

However, he admitted there are “always things that can be responded to better.”

Asked if there was any issue he wished he could’ve seen to the finish line, he mentioned isles connectivity.

He said: ” The big issue for a place with so many different island communities is the connectivity.

Hoped for more progress on isles connectivity

“Both in terms of transport and digital connectivity, we’ve been short-changed.

“These are two issues that I would have loved to see to the finish line. But it’s evident they’re going to take some time yet before we see a result.”

He did praising the work of elected members and council staff on these issues.

Orkney chief executive
John Mundell and his former place of work

Nevertheless, he said he “personally regretted” that they hadn’t been resolved.

Finally, he wished to pay tribute to those he worked with while in Orkney.

John Mundell said: “I’d like to express my sincere thanks to all my colleagues and members at Orkney council.

“I’d like to thank Orkney folk themselves for affording me a wonderful opportunity to help by serving them.

“It’s been a genuine privilege and I wish them all the success.”