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Council / Pre-election restrictions delay climate petition response

Wir hame is on fire: Climate strike rally in Lerwick in September 2019. Photo: Peter Johnson/Shetland News

A FORMAL response from Shetland Islands Council to a petition calling on the local authority to declare a climate emergency has been delayed as a result of a knock-on effect of the upcoming election.

The online petition, which has over 450 signatures, is having to suffer the silent treatment due to restrictions on what the council can publicly say in the lead-up to the general election on 12 December.

Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts said a report referencing the petition is expected go to before councillors after the election.

The matter was also raised during the recent council by-elections campaign period by Shetland Central candidate Stewart Douglas – with Coutts also saying back in October that the council could not comment due to the impending local vote.

The Local Government Association advises that councils should “not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party”.

It is understood that a more general agenda item on climate which would have been considered by councillors next week has been postponed due to the general election.

Work on Shetland Islands Council’s new recycling sorting shed at Gremista is completed after suffering delays, but is its understood the local authority has decided against publicising it during the pre-election period.

Talk about ‘green’ initiatives or issues is considered highly political, with the topic proving to be an integral part of election campaigns.

SIC leader Coutts said that the council is “liaising with organisers of petition and expect a report to committee on the matter after the general election”.

“Similar to the issues around by-election, the general election has impacted on our timeline for bringing this to committee,” he said in a recent response to Douglas.

A number of local authorities have already declared a climate emergency to encourage more action on the issue, including Orkney Islands Council.

Shetland Islands Council guidance on agenda items in meetings during pre-election periods says: “As a general rule, the work of the council should continue and the item should be considered for inclusion (in the agenda for council or committee meetings).

“However, the director of corporate services or his/her staff may consider there is too great a risk in considering the item prior to the election and it may be postponed as a result. The general rule should be in favour of business as usual.”

The pre-election period for the 12 December general election began on 6 November and it will be in place until the vote has concluded.

The pre-election period for the Shetland Central and Lerwick South wards ended on 8 November after beginning some weeks earlier.

There was also restrictions imposed in the lead-up to the Scottish Parliamentary by-election for Shetland, which took place in late August.

Shetland will have had four elections by the close of 2019, with voters going to the polls in European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, council and Westminster elections.

Taking into account that the UK was supposed to leave the EU before the European Parliament vote in May, all four elections were not expected.

Most Shetland Islands Council meetings are still taking place during the pre-election period, but that is not the same around the country.

Torfaen County Borough Council in Wales rescheduled three quarters of its upcoming meetings to after the election, while Portsmouth City Council, for example, has also cancelled and postponed a number of meetings.

Unlike Shetland Islands Council, which only has one non-independent councillor, other local authorities on the UK mainland predominately feature party-affiliated members – leading to a greater chance of political debate in meetings.