THE THREE candidates who will automatically be elected to Shetland Islands Council have all spoken of their disappointment that there will be no contest in the South Mainland ward.
Incumbent councillors Allison Duncan and George Smith will be joined by the SNP’s local convener Robbie McGregor, who in effect replaces Billy Fox who decided not to stand for re-election.
It is the only one out of seven Shetland wards where there won’t be a contest. Duncan, who took some 45 per cent of first preference votes for a commanding victory in 2012, said that despite the absence of a poll he would not be altering his campaign plans.
“I’m disappointed there’s not more candidates come forward,” he said. “If there had been more coming forward and an election had to take place, from my perspective it would have told me how bad or good I was doing as a councillor.”
He is off to Fair Isle later this week and intends to press ahead with printing his manifesto and visiting doorsteps throughout the constituency.
“They have a right to know what I had in my manifesto,” Duncan said. “It’s only right that if I hold officers in the council to account, my constituents should do the same for me.”
He is unsure why so few candidates have come forward – the overall number in Shetland is down from 43 to 32, meaning around two in three candidates will succeed – this time.
Too many votes?
Duncan suggested people might be “fed up with electioneering” – after the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the May 2015 UK general election, the 2016 Scottish election and last June’s Brexit vote, this will be the fifth time in under three years that islanders have been asked to go to the polls.
He said he would have to “agree to disagree on independence” with McGregor, but “beyond that there’s no reason I can’t be working with Mr McGregor”, adding they had each congratulated one another.
After a decade on the council, the outspoken crofter remains steadfastly in favour of shutting junior high schools including Sandwick in his own ward, Aith and some primary schools in order to make savings.
“We have to look at the school estate and amalgamate schools,” he told Shetland News this week.
He is also eager for the council to continue working with Hjaltland Housing Association, which is able to attract greater grant funding than the local authority, to get more houses built.
Duncan said other priorities in the next five years would include the challenge of providing social care for an ageing population, and pressing the SNP government to make good on its promise to boost funding for ferry services in the islands.
Quarff resident McGregor is a newcomer to Lerwick Town Hall, and will become Shetland’s first ever SNP councillor.
He said he was “extremely thrilled” to become one of the South Mainland’s three representatives, though he was “a bit disappointed there wasn’t a contest”, adding that Duncan, Smith and Fox would be “a hard act to follow” and “if I can do the job as well as they did I’ll be very content”.
‘An awful lot of listening’
Aside from himself and two Conservative candidates, no one is standing on a party ticket. McGregor explained that, having been the late Danus Skene’s election agent last year and being the party’s convener, he felt he had to stand on an SNP ticket “as a matter of integrity”.
“I have to make sure that I perform to the best of my ability, and then people will maybe not be so anti-SNP in the future,” he said.
Some might wonder whether his connections within Scotland’s established party of government could have its uses to the SIC. McGregor acknowledged that he had some access to ministers, but stressed he was a newcomer to the local authority and “will be doing an awful lot of listening”.
Back for a second term, former Shetland College man Smith – who became a close ally of the retiring Fox over the past five years – said he would not be running a full-scale campaign, but is “always happy to speak to anybody that wants to speak to me”.
“Obviously a vote is a precious thing, so it would have been better to have had an election,” he said, “but at the end of the day you’ve got to get folk to put their names forward.
“There will be folk that will be disappointed that they don’t have a chance to use their vote – in lots of countries folk don’t have the vote, and would give anything to have one.”
Smith says a key priority between now and 2022 will be protecting the decimated schools budget from any further cuts.
“I can’t see how we can keep reducing school budgets and expect to retain the quality of education,” he said.
“If we keep cutting away at that, taking out classroom assistants and resources for pupil support, you end up with a narrowing of the curriculum.”
Work with communities
In terms of possible closures, he accepts it is “not always the best thing to keep a school open”, but the biggest mistake made during the last council’s abortive attempt to shut schools was attempting to “impose closures” rather than work with the affected communities.
He cited Bressay as an example where the community voted with their feet, resulting in its primary school closing as most parents were taking their children to Lerwick to be taught.
Smith said it remained to be seen what impact the new Anderson High School, due to open in October, would have on the secondary department in Sandwick.
“Maybe not in the first year, but over time you might expect to see those living north of Sandwick gravitating towards Lerwick,” he said. “At this moment in time, Sandwick is still the main option for most parents. I wouldn’t be advocating any closure unless that is what the community themselves want.”
He also wants to ensure the promised deals on both internal and external ferries are forthcoming.
“It will make a huge odds financially, obviously, but also [allowing us to have] faith in a government that’s interested in the whole of Scotland.”
Smith added he wanted the council to continue working with the Citizens Advice Bureau on addressing fuel poverty at a time when electricity prices are increasing by around 15 per cent.
He wants to see pressure to ensure the Scottish Government hands over control of the Crown Estate to Shetland, and also hopes ways can be found to “further energise” community councils.
Rather than handing them responsibilities as volunteers, he is interested in looking at whether community councils can be given revenue-raising powers, and possibly even taking on local services such as, for example, maintaining roads in their own area.