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Council / Streaming meetings will give ‘greater access’ to local democracy, SIC chief says

The new home of council meetings once the old library building next door is refurbished. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

THERE are hopes that streaming video of Shetland Islands Council meetings online will increase participation in local democracy – and might even encourage people to stand for election in the future.

Council meetings are set to move from downstairs in Lerwick Town Hall to the nearby St Ringan’s, which is the current home of Shetland Library.

The move will take place once lending services move back to the old library building a stone’s throw away after it is refurbished at a cost of £1.6 million, although this make take a couple of years to come to fruition.

Proposals are also set to be drawn up for making the learning centre next door to St Ringan’s into offices for councillors.

Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said webcasting future meetings at St Ringan’s would allow the public “greater access” to the local decision making process.

The current chamber, first on the right when you enter the Town Hall, is said to be unfit for purpose due to its cramped size, with St Ringan’s offering more space and requiring only minor adjustments.

It has been used for meetings since the 1970s, but the layout means that unlike some other councils in Scotland, video streaming debates on the internet is not an option.

Council meetings are generally open to the public unless items contain commercial sensitivity, but it is rare for onlookers to come in to watch proceedings unless it involves contentious decisions like school closures or wind farm planning applications.

If it is particularly busy with the public then audio is sometimes relayed in the main hall upstairs.

Sandison said it is her “vision” that everything in the new chamber will be broadcast online.

“I’m not sure everybody will be interested, but it will give us a chance to create greater access for people,” she said.

“Sometimes our staff are affected by the decisions that are made in the chamber, and it gives them a chance to see them what’s happening in the process of decision making.

“But also more importantly the public that we serve can actually see the decision making process in action.”

It is unclear what the appetite for watching a pension fund committee meeting at 10am on a Monday morning may be, but it is likely that more contentious issues will attract attention.

However, a quick scan of Orkney Islands Council’s Soundcloud page, where it streams audio of meetings, shows that some uploads only attract a handful of listeners.

A number of local councillors are keen to see increased coverage of meetings, although with the next local government elections in 2022, some may not get the chance to be webcast to the masses for long.

“I think that we see limited numbers of people coming to the chamber [at the moment], and obviously when we do have a lot of people wanting to come and hear a debate, then we quite often have to put them in a separate room, which I don’t think is promoting the level of access that we should be encouraging,” Sandison said.

“I think it’s really important that people see the impact of democracy in their community, that actually the decisions as a council have day to day effect on how people live in Shetland and I want people to really understand the role of the councillors in doing the best for Shetland.

“I think how we can do that is increase participation and promote participation at various different levels, whether it’s watching the debates, whether it’s hearing the debates, and whether actually also considering for other people whether they might even want to be a councillor at some point in the future.

“I think it’s hard for people when they’re considering in the run up to elections to really understand the job of a councillor, and I think we can make that more accessible than it is at the moment.”