SEVERAL members of the Shetland Islands Council have expressed disappointment at proposals to alter the isles’ electoral wards.
The SIC were updated on Thursday at Lerwick’s Town Hall with the final report into the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland’s [LGBS] plans to rejig some of Shetland’s ward boundaries to ensure greater “electoral parity”.
The plans would see Shetland West absorb voters from Girlsta, Laxfirth and Dales Voe, while Shetland Central would gain Gulberwick and Quarff from Lerwick South and Shetland South respectively.
The latter two wards have seen their population rise “significantly” since a statuary review in 2006, and the proposals would bring them closer to the desired parity figure of 800 voters per councillor.
The current set-up of Shetland splitting into seven areas, with 22 councillors spread across six three-member wards and one four-member ward, will remain the same.
However, a number of councillors have expressed concerns that the proposals – which are scheduled come into force ahead of the 2017 local government elections – would negatively impact “established communities”.
The full council heard an update from governance and law executive manager Jan-Robert Riise, who drafted a letter to the commission expressing a worry that areas may have no association with their new wards, partly in terms of accessing services such as health and social care.
Local community councils and the public have been engaged in a 12-week consultation process.
Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills mentioned the burgeoning area of Gulberwick – currently contained in his ward – and its strong links to services, such as education and health, in Lerwick.
“Have they misunderstood the geography?” he asked, referring to how Gulberwick would, under the proposals, be moved into Shetland Central despite its ties with Lerwick.
Fellow Lerwick South representative Peter Campbell added that the council’s willingness to engage in future electoral ward reviews – potentially in conjunction with the Scottish Government’s mooted Islands Bill and its possible exploration of one or two-member wards – is something that could render the current proposals a waste of time.
Suggesting there could be an argument to maintain the “status quo” in the meantime before re-examining things once the island devolution bill has passed, Campbell said that the current proposal for change may be an “inappropriate use of funds”.
Riise said that the council was unable to suggest alterations based on the assumption that the law might change, despite there being a strong argument for having Shetland’s islands represented by just one, or two, councillors.
Shetland Central member Davie Sandison raised the example of Scalloway residents historically using the Tingwall graveyard – a piece of land that would be shifted from the central ward to Shetland West under the new proposals.
“How strong is the need for parity and does it trump everything else?” he asked.
Shetland South councillor Billy Fox agreed that the council’s reservations should be made clear to the Boundary Commission – “not least to put it on record, but also to test the credibility of the Islands Bill.”
Chief executive Mark Boden backed Fox by saying it is “appropriate” for the council to make their points heard and to ask questions.
Lerwick North’s Allan Wishart then raised the question of how “relevant” community history is in terms of council representation and provision of services.
Wills concluded by suggesting the council make clear their objection to the proposal on the grounds that it gives “disproportionate weight to parity” and ignores the issue of local ties.
Sandison added that disparity over the number of voters per councillor was “totally insignificant” in relation to other issues, as it only effects around “40-60 people” some wards.
The council resolved to make no alternative proposals for the wards, but agreed to express their concerns to the LGBS by letter.