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Election / Neither democracy nor good governance

James Paton. Photo taken at Twagoes, his ward seat name back in the 1980s. Photo: Private

The new council really must raise its game in terms of diversity of representation and ability to engage, involve and represent the community, writes James Paton in this opinion piece.
James was a Labour councillor on the SIC from 1986 to 1988 and had been contemplating to stand at the forthcoming council election but is unlikely to do so.


THE local elections will soon be on us. One hopes for a wide range of candidates with contests in every seat and lively, well attended public hustings. There seems some concern however within the ranks of the council (management and/or elected members?) that there will be more seats than candidates.

Is it the case that Shetland does not have 23 people who can exercise sound judgement, creativity and give effective voice, even on the all too limited powers and finance, to the power-mad centralist (all parties) at Holyrood?

There is a real irony here. The Scottish Government incessantly talks about liberating us from Westminster’s ‘tyranny’ but the same Scottish Government cannot, it seems, trust the Scottish people to more substantively govern in their own localities.

Nicola, and now Lorna and Patrick, seem hell-bent on maintaining local government as a political plaything, imposing central diktat and/or blaming councils when nationally set targets are missed.

Holyrood’s stranglehold on planning law is of major concern. This resulted in the imposition of the Viking Energy project on a community having legitimate concerns on size and ownership, given a clearly divided council where only nine of then 22 elected members did ‘the deal’.

The imposition of a national care strategy is another example, where Holyrood thinks it knows best for very different localities – city, rural and island – where one size rarely fits all.  (This council is however presiding and hiding, it seems, from a growing local care crisis, playing into the centralists’ national care strategy’s hands.)

This brings me to major fault lines which harken in the growing crisis in your local democracy.

Firstly, whilst I could easily live on £16,000 per year – call me frugal – anyone between 16 and 65 with families to support cannot possibly be expected to give up their job and become a full-time representative of their community.

It is much, much more than representing a ward, but having to think about Shetland’s overall strategic economic and social needs. The councillors who struggle to keep a job, run a family and do council work are to be revered, but they are deluded if they think they can do justice to the time required of the complexities and demands of local government.

It is a full-time job and should be paid as such, but not to those retired elected members, especially not those already on a hefty council pension. The stipend or salary to be a councillor needs to be increased to attract anyone to stand, especially the young. The majority of councillors are far from representative of the majority of Shetland’s population.

Secondly, council employees, making up at least a quarter, if not more, of the electorate here, are current disenfranchised from standing for council. If it is good enough for former local authority employees, now long retired and enjoying their dirty carbon oil industry investment pension scheme to stand, then it should be good enough for current employees. With certain safeguards for their job of course, and also prevention from serving on a committee that has a direct bearing on their council job, to avoid ‘insider trading’ as it were.

This is what all of Scandinavia does, but whilst Nicola is busy sucking up to them with a new diplomatic office in Denmark, she stubbornly refuses to devolve to, and invigorate, local democracy at home, and is now supported in this democratic deficit by the Greens, who have since inception been, and continue to be a urban intellectual (?) gender obsessed elite!

We, the people, currently suffer at the hands of what appears to be a generally ill-trained, unwise, fear ridden managerial class within the council who are not controlled by elected members. 

It feels like a Weberian technocracy in some Kafkaesque nightmare. They, the management, certainly have the upper hand over elected members it seems. The puppets are in effect the puppet masters?  This is not democracy nor good governance, as the law intends it fails to deliver on due to Holyrood. Good governance of course seems in short supply at Holyrood and Westminster, never mind locally.

Why change is needed

Let me give you a very practical example to demonstrate my concerns about the competence at elected and managerial level within the council, on quite a simple set of matters, and why change is needed.

Almost two years ago, I landed back on my native shores and Covid provided me with the best decision I never had to make, a no brainier, to become my mam’s live-in carer. This has been both a joy and extremely personally rewarding, despite my weaknesses in the role.

Resident in Water Lane and taking strolls out then with mam, securely in hand, it dawned on me how dilapidated the infrastructure was in the neighbourhood of my childhood – built and largely untouched, save double glazing, new doors and wall insulation, since 1964.

And now, broken and crumbling walls, every second paving stone a trip hazard with no disabled access, pot-holed road and car parks, insufficient parking such that the fire engine or elderly care bus can’t even access the area – council breaking the law here. Not to mention the absentee landlordism, where all but one of the upper flats is privately owned.

So just a little TLC facelift of the public space – some fences, planted greenery, a play area – is all that’s required. Two years later, only one of the four ward councillors and one community councillor have visited, just in case LCC thinks it is off the hook on this one.

The SIC and LCC councillors who did visit and talked with me, live at the very opposite ends of town. So full marks for them, they deserve re-election. No officers have visited, due to Covid!

Winter weather to be fair prevented an almost site visit, but nothing prevented the officers/managers from taking a lunchtime stroll around. Assuming they could get parked. It’s an outdoor walk and I am very concerned that they may not know what two metres looks like, especially the roads management manager.

Given the millions wasted on proposing to do exactly the wrong thing the town needs at the Knab, a few thousand could significantly enhance the daily lived experience for 40 people, not to mention the housing and enhanced amenity opportunity on a brownfield site in the middle of a residential and conservation area.

A small example but it exemplifies, I think, the current dysfunctionality in our local government and why it is perhaps not taken as seriously as it might.

Smirk cartoons, Whitrit columns, letters to local media, Up Helly Aa proclamations and squad sketches – or worse ignored by moothless Shetlanders. This in itself creates a toxic culture, where standing for council or being a councillor carries little or no community support or respect.

Is it any wonder the range of candidates is so limited, mostly to the retired or business class that can seem to afford the time and don’t need the money.

The new council really must raise its game in terms of diversity of representation and ability to engage, involve and represent the community. In so doing, it has to then take the fight for enhanced local democracy to, and gain significant local powers from, Holyrood.

If not, yet another five years of ineffective governance awaits us with no progress on the substantive issues facing Shetland: fuel poverty and other cost of living factors, transport costs, Lerwick overcrowding at the cost of remote rural economic diversity development.

As the song goes When the fight for freedom rages, be bold and strong as they – our Scandinavian cousins.  Nothing short of Faroese style government arrangements will do, with a serious enhancement of community council powers and spending.

Despite my grumpy, impatient manner towards the council, and some councillors, borne out of 40 years of largely oppositional party politics – ever the dreamer, which we don’t do, and never have done in Shetland – it is never personal.

It’s about the issues and how and if they are addressed. The public’s understanding of local government, its demands and constraints, remains sketchy it seems.

Perhaps the vast majority are entirely content with policy, strategy and delivery in a land still with plenty of milk and honey, and more to come, if we play our cards right. However real challenges remain – real poverty, real addiction, real mental health issues, real housing shortages, weary infrastructure. All will have to be faced, not just by the council, but by the populace at large if we are the caring, close-knit community I keep hearing about.

Vote for candidates who really believe in Shetland’s future and are willing to stand up to out-of-touch and/or incompetent ‘big’ government, be it at Holyrood or Westminster.

As well as be engaging, transparent and accountable to the local populace, who it seems also needs to seriously raise its game when it comes to both standing for, voting and being otherwise participatory in what is, or should be, their council. Over to you!