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Council / Covid pandemic sees councillors’ claims for expenses take significant dip

Absences from meetings were also down as committees went online

Lerwick Town Hall.

EXPENSES claimed by councillors fell to less than a twentieth of the previous level as the Covid-19 pandemic pushed local democracy online and largely eliminated the need for travel to and from meetings.

Official annual figures for 2020/21 were published on Monday and showed the combined cost of salaries and expenses for Shetland Islands Council’s 22 elected members came to just under £430,000.

A total of £427,172 was paid out in salaries, an increase on £412,533 in 2019/20, but the overall cost of local democracy came down significantly as expenses claimed fell from nearly £60,000 last year to just over £2,500 as a knock-on effect of the Covid-19 restrictions.

The combined price tag declined by around nine per cent from £472,122 to £429,756 as travel to meetings both within and outwith the isles became the exception rather than the norm – with the bulk of what little was claimed coming under telephone and IT expenses.

Mileage claims totalled £1,462 compared to over £11,000 last year, while other expenses – which includes external travel and accommodation – actually left the council in the black to the tune of £849 after other organisations footed the bill for two trips outside Shetland, compared to a cost of more than £36,000 last year.

And, while many councillors are known to have been frustrated at the lack of in-person interactions over the past 15 months, holding committee sessions over Microsoft Teams and travel restrictions have resulted in vastly higher attendance at meetings.

The SIC’s 22 councillors offered apologies for absence on 16 occasions between them, with no member missing more than three meetings and half of councillors boasting a 100 per cent attendance record.

In comparison, in 2019/20 there were 124 apologies in a year where four individual councillors missed more than ten meetings and only one member did not miss any meetings.

The basic salary for a councillor rose by two per cent to £17,854, which was the amount received by 11 councillors.

Various office-bearers received increments on top of that, including those who chair the local authority’s various committees, while council leader Steven Coutts received £29,760 and convener Malcolm Bell was paid £22,320.

Bell said the lower expense claims were clearly related to Covid-19 restrictions that resulted in many councillors attending meetings remotely.

“The difference we are seeing this year both in attendance and in the reduction in expenses are largely due to the restrictions imposed due to Covid-19,” the convener said.

“Representative democracy comes at a cost, and I would say we provide pretty good value for money. We always work hard to represent the interests of Shetland, and that’s irrespective of whether we’re doing it face-to-face or remotely.”