Josie takes the helm

SHETLAND Islands Council has voted in a new political leader as part of major structural changes designed to tackle criticism levelled by local government watchdog the Accounts Commission last year.

Josie Simpson beat councillor Gussie Angus to retain his position as vice convener, with the added responsibility of political leader of the council, chairing a new executive committee that will steer policy and strategy for Scotland’s richest local authority.

He will be supported by four new committee chairs that were voted in during a 90 minute session on Monday afternoon.

The council’s overstretched services committee is being split into two, with councillor Betty Fullerton to chair the new children, families and learning committee, having beaten off Gary Robinson and Bill Manson.

Cecil Smith was unopposed as chairman of communities, health and wellbeing.

Councillor Alastair Cooper was the only candidate to chair the economy and development committee.

No one else was put forward to oppose Iris Hawkins as chair of the environment committee, though she was not at the meeting having been taken to hospital after hurting herself in a fall on Monday afternoon.

Convener Sandy Cluness will remain as convener, however his post will become that of civic leader, earning almost £7,000 less than Mr Simpson as political leader of the council.

Councillors voted to hold off deciding on a raft of further senior positions until their next full council meeting on 23 March, but insisted they wanted to maintain the pace of change.

Only veteran councillor Florence Grains spoke out against separating the role of civic and political head of the council, but could not even find a seconder for her stance.

The changes were proposed after a series of private seminars with chief executive Alistair Buchan, legal chief Jan Riise and local government expert Nigel Stewart, who was drafted in to help with the restructuring.

For the past six months the council has been working towards an improvement plan following a highly critical report from the Accounts Commission on their governance, political leadership and working relations within the authority.

Mr Buchan told members that creating a sturdy decision making structure was probably the single most important factor in a strong local authority.

“The decision you take today will send a powerful signal to the organisation as a whole in terms of change and how the organisation will go forward,” he said.

There was remarkably little disagreement amongst councillors about the proposed new committee structure, though councillor Angus launched into a strong attack on the way the council is run at the moment, describing it as

“fundamentally anti-democratic”.

Only last month Mr Angus stood down as chairman of the service committee and put little heart into his speech to become vice convener, only winning four votes to Mr Simpson’s 16.

Earlier on he had said the council had much to do to improve its game, to communicate its workings to the general public and to improve the “seriously dysfunctional relationships” amongst members and officers.

He called for five back benchers to sit on the new executive committee to “avoid the perception that the council will be run by a cabal”.

There were other quibbles with the details of the new structure, in particular with the cumbersome new committee titles, but Mr Buchan assured members they would have time to reconsider such factors at future seminars and meetings.

After his re-election as vice convener and political leader, Mr Simpson said: “I think it’s a great honour to be voted in and I hope I don’t let you down.”