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Council / ‘It’s been an absolute privilege’ – SIC convener to step down at next election

Malcolm Bell. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell has confirmed he will not stand in the next election in May – bringing down the curtain on a decade of representing the isles at home and abroad.

The 58-year-old said it has been an “absolute privilege” to act as both convener and councillor for Lerwick North and Bressay.

Bell was first elected as councillor in 2012 before being returned by the electorate five years later.

During this decade he was appointed the role of convener by his peers, which is in effect an ambassador for Shetland. He is one of the longest serving conveners Shetland has had.

But Bell always knew this would be his last term as councillor, and with family living on the mainland he is keen to spend more time with his loved ones.

“It’s been the biggest honour of my working life,” Bell, a former police chief, reflected to Shetland News.

“I’ve worked in public service all my life – 10 years as a councillor, 10 years as a convener, it is the longest I’ve spent in any single role. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s been fascinating.”

The convener role is one of the most senior posts within the council, and Bell himself described it as being a “figurehead, a representative of the islands” while building and maintaining enduring relationships.

Among his personal highlights is attending Island Games in Jersey, Gotland and Gibraltar, meeting royalty and greeting politicians and ambassadors.

“The Up Helly Aa civics have been a high point every year,” he added.

“It’s really disappointing that this year I’ll not get a last opportunity to speak at one of those civics. It’s something I really enjoyed doing.”

Guizer jarl Ivor Cluness meets council convener Malcolm Bell during Tuesday morning's civic reception in the Lerwick Town Hall - Photo: Chris Brown
Guizer jarl Ivor Cluness meeting council convener Malcolm Bell during the 2014 Up Helly Aa civic reception in the Lerwick Town Hall. Photo: Chris Brown

In his 10 years as convener Bell has also represented Shetland abroad in other countries such as Faroe.

But the role also has its sombre moments, such as ceremonial wreath laying.

One trip which sticks out in the memory was a visit in 2016 to Beaumont Hamel, a village in northern France which was involved in the First World War’s Battle of the Somme and played host to some Shetland losses.

“I laid a wreath there on behalf of the Shetlanders who were killed in that battle,” Bell said. “That was an extremely poignant moment, just being there exactly 100 years from the day the battle took place.”

When it comes to the constituency work, Bell said the little things – such as bin collections, street lighting and parking spaces – often mean the most to residents.

“That’s the most important part of being a councillor,” he said. “It’s very mundane but it’s important to the person it affects.”

Bell secured more than half of the votes in the Lerwick North ward in 2012 and five years later he gained over 70 per cent.

Prior to being elected, Bell – who was born and brought up in Lerwick – worked his way through the ranks of the police force, becoming Shetland’s top officer in 2006 after returning the isles.

He retired from the police in 2009 ahead of standing for council.

Bell is also currently vice-chairman of NHS Shetland, the president of the Scottish Provosts Association and is involved with the Sullom Voe Association.

He said, though, that there have been some difficult issues to handle in the council chamber during his time in office.

“One thing you learn as a councillor is you cannot keep everybody happy, but you always do try to do what’s right,” Bell said.

“Hopefully in time people come to understand that and accept that.”

Meanwhile with some other senior councillors expected not to stand in the May 2022 election, there is more impetus than ever for fresh blood to put themselves forward.

Bell encouraged anyone thinking about standing to give it “serious consideration”.

He believes local government is “under threat as never before” and come 2022 the council needs people willing to stand up for it.

The councillor cited sectors like public health, water and sewage, police and fire which have all been centralised, while there are now also proposals to create a national care service.

Bell stressed it is not party political as it has affected various governments for decades.

“What we’re left with now is a system of local government that is neither local nor government,” he added.

“I didn’t come into politics to have less powers or less influence and I can’t imagine why anyone would come into politics to give away influence.

“What we really need at the next election is people coming forward from whatever place in the political spectrum who will defend the system of local government.”