SHETLAND Islands Council has asked for a “short pause” in an ongoing consultation into its electoral arrangements to explore whether the isles can be covered by a series of mainly two-member wards.
As part of a national review, the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland has suggested a number of amendments to the current set-up, including making Whalsay and Skerries a new single councillor ward.
However, council officials have suggested their own proposals, which centres around the idea of breaking down the existing wards into eight two-member wards, and keeping Lerwick North and Lerwick South at three and four councillors respectively.
The matter was discussed at a meeting of the full council on Wednesday, with members agreeing to write to the commission to request further collaboration and dialogue.
The commission’s proposal is to reduce the North Isles from a three member ward to a two member one, with Whalsay and Skerries separating and being represented by a lone councillor.
The organisation also suggested taking one councillor away from the west ward and adding another councillor each to the Shetland Central and Shetland South wards, increasing the total number of elected members by one to 23.
The council, however, feels it could be worth exploring the concept of having two councillors represent sections of Shetland outside of Lerwick, making the wards more concise.
This could see Whalsay and Skerries splitting from the North Isles ward and joining a new ward alongside Lunnasting, Vidlin, Nesting and Voe.
The council would also be interested in seeing the south mainland ward – which currently spans south of Gulberwick to Fair Isle – split into Sandwick, Cunningsburgh and Quarff, and Levenwick, Dunrossness and Fair Isle.
Other wards could include Whiteness, Weisdale and Tingwall, and Scalloway, Burra and Trondra.
This suggestion would also see the overall number of councillors increase to 23.
Shetland’s 22 councillors are currently divided into seven wards: North Isles, Shetland North, Shetland West, Shetland Central, Lerwick North, Lerwick South and Shetland South.
Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland is reviewing six councils as part of the recently introduced Islands Act to explore numbers of councillors and internal boundaries of wards.
While the process is a consultation with the council, the commission did meet to discuss its proposals with councillors at a seminar in April.
Chairs of Shetland’s community councils had earlier been given a chance to informally have their say at a meeting in March.
Council lawyer Jan Riise said that it is “not considered tenable for the existing status quo to continue” due to the levels of negative electoral parity – number of electors per councillor within a constituency – in some parts of Shetland, with the west side a particular problem.
He told Wednesday’s full council meeting that there was not much appetite locally to see Whalsay represented by a single councillor.
“It was not something the island of Whalsay felt necessary,” he said.
Riise added that concerns had also been raised over the ability a lone councillor could have in attending meetings, as at the main committees each ward is represented.
He reiterated that any changes to the wards would only come into place for the next local government election in 2022 – meaning councillors have a few years yet before they can worry about changes to their ward.
Council convener Malcolm Bell had a job trying to keep the discussion on the matter at hand, which was to approve a response to the commission rather than form any concrete proposals on ward changes.
West member Theo Smith said he felt the boundary commission seemed “obsessed by numbers” when it came to the reasons for change.
North mainland councillor Alastair Cooper, meanwhile, said he was concerned about the suggestion that Voe, which is in the parish of Delting, could be placed within a constituency with areas like Lunnasting.
Amanda Hawick, who represents Lerwick South, questioned if splitting the south mainland – which did not go to a vote in 2017 as only three candidates came forward – into two sections would increase interest in the next election.
Riise added that he felt the council needs to look at how it holds its committee meetings, specifically in areas such as the time of the day, to enable more people to feel like they could put themselves forward to become a councillor.
Chief executive Maggie Sandison said the local authority would be doing more work to encourage people to think about being councillors, such as detailing what life is like as an elected member.
“We have got a plan on how we promote the idea of people considering a role in politics,” she said.
South end councillor Allison Duncan said he thought in rural areas there would be “better representation slicing it up into smaller wards”.
“I think a two member ward can cope with what we are trying to do here in the chamber,” he said.
Fellow south mainland member George Smith said he was “happy with the principle” of breaking things down into two member wards outside of Lerwick, but he expressed caution over the “mechanics” of how it would work.
Shetland’s only non-independent councillor Robbie McGregor, who is affiliated with the SNP, “threw down the challenge” of other political parties offering up candidates for the next election.
The wide-ranging debate was concluded with members agreeing to respond to the boundary commission to ask for a temporary delay in its consultation on Shetland.
A letter due to be sent to the commission concludes: “The council recognises that the commission has its own work plan to take forward this review, but requests that the collaboration we have experienced so far, could be taken a step further by seeking, through further collaboration, a plan of ward representation which is achieved without the council having to proceed by way of objections through the next round of public consultation.”