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Council / Little enthusiasm for proposed changes to councillor numbers and ward boundaries

Image: Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland

PROPOSED changes to council wards in Shetland were met with a decidedly lukewarm response from councillors on Wednesday – with concerns in particular over how they may affect the west side.

The Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland has suggested, as part of a national review, increasing the total number of councillors in Shetland by one to 23, but it proposes cutting some wards from three members to two.

The proposals – aimed to achieving better voter representation in the south and west mainland in particular – were giving an airing at a meeting of the full council on Wednesday, but for many the status quo was the preferred way to go.

One area of agreement was the south mainland, and the commission’s plans to increase the number of councillors from three to four in a bid to make the number of voters per member more equal.

Councillors also gave their backing to the idea of moving Gulberwick and its 420 electors from Lerwick South to Shetland South, partly due to the anticipated numbers of new housing set to be built in the town, but that change has not been proposed by the commission at this stage.

At the moment, Shetland’s 22 elected councillors are spread across seven wards and while the North Isles has its own ward, the remote Fair Isle is submerged into the south mainland section and Foula and Papa Stour are represented by west side members.

The proposed changes have become possible as part of the new Scottish Islands Act, which provides flexibility on the number of councillors for wards in which there are inhabited islands.

Debate among councillors on Wednesday – designed to give the boundary commission feedback on its proposals – started off in the North Isles, which currently has three members representing Unst, Yell, Fetlar, Whalsay and Skerries.

Gulberwick. Photo: Shetland News

The commission has proposed to remove Whalsay and Skerries from the North Isles and include them in a new two-member ward, Shetland North East, together with Lunnasting, Vidlin, Nesting and Voe.

It has also suggested reducing the number of councillors in the north and North Isles wards from three to two.

Whalsay councillor Duncan Simpson said the view from his island was resolute.

“I think it’s clear from Whalsay at least that they are wanting the status quo to continue,” he said.

The views of the north mainland were similar, according to members Alastair Cooper and Emma Macdonald.

They said the community was opposed to the idea of taking Voe – which Cooper dubbed the “gateway to the north” – out of the ward, with the status quo again the preferred option.

To the south mainland, and local councillor George Smith said he saw the logic in taking Gulberwick to the south end, and although services like schools are provided in Lerwick, it has strong ties to the south through the likes of football’s Parish Cup and its community council.

This view was echoed by Lerwick South’s Peter Campbell.

“Although a lot of the activity within Gulberwick faces towards Lerwick, it does seem to have a more rural feel to it than the town,” he said.

Fellow Lerwick South member Amanda Hawick, meanwhile, said Gulberwick residents she had spoken to seemed more aligned with the south end than the town.

Lerwick North’s Stephen Leask said it was his belief that the older folk in Gulberwick sided more with the south mainland, and that the younger ones felt more part of Lerwick.

“I think we have to go with what’s best for the community,” added Lerwick South’s Cecil Smith.

No changes are proposed by the boundary commission in Lerwick South or Lerwick North – apart from the latter adding Bressay to its title.

In the west of Shetland, the commission proposes to reduce the number of councillors from three to two – a suggestion which has not gone down too well with community councils in the area.

“If you go from three to two councillors, that councillors’ work load is certainly going to be increased,” west side member Theo Smith said – adding that it is “verging on the unfair”.

“The west side community councils are extremely opposed to any change,” said fellow west councillor Catherine Hughson.

In the Central ward there are currently three councillors, and the proposal is to raise this number to four while at the same time bringing in Whiteness and Weisdale from the west.

Davie Sandison said the communities in his ward were fairly neutral on the suggestions.

Fellow central member Ian Scott added that a compromise may need to be made between the west and central wards.

“If the status quo is not going to be accepted…then the west side and the central ward have to come to some sort of accommodation,” he said.

Lerwick Town Hall.

Governance and law manager Jan Riise suggested one option could be to bring the Girlsta, Wadbister and Laxfirth area into the west side and keep Gott in Shetland Central.

Davie Sandison, meanwhile, said it should be noted that changes to the wards could impact on the structure of the council’s committees, which often have representation from each region of Shetland.

“I don’t think we can ignore how significant that could be,” he said. “I think it would lead to a wholesale review of the council’s committee structure.”

Council leader Steven Coutts said that any changes should be “future-proofed” and fit for purpose down the line, rather than needing to be modified again in the years ahead.

But he said that “reluctantly…a two member ward for Shetland West seems to be the way it’s going”.

Coutts also echoed earlier suggestions that greater flexibility could be introduced regarding councillors’ alignment to wards.

Scott, meanwhile, questioned whether the number of councillors or ward boundaries actually has an impact on everyday people – and whether folk were bothered by the proposed changes.

“I’m pretty sure that if the Scalloway people were told we were going to go with Burra, I don’t think the people themselves would have a great objection,” he said.

“Is it such a big deal? I’m just not too convinced it is all that relevant”.

Coutts reminded Scott that the commission’s plans are based on achieving parity between the number of voters and councillors.

Council convener and meeting chair Malcolm Bell concluded the debate by reminding members that the local authority was just a consultee in the process – with the boundary commission having the final say.

The views of the council will now be fed back to the boundary commission, with a call for extra consultation with the communities affected by the proposed changes.