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Council / New SIC leader keen to make council more accessible

Emma Macdonald was appointed the council’s new leader last month, and she is keen for the SIC to be ‘more open to the public’

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council’s new leader says more can be done to “demystify” the work of elected members and make life in the chamber more accessible.

Emma Macdonald said she feels there is “a lot that goes on that people are just not really aware of” outside of what is reported in the media.

The Shetland North councillor was appointed leader last month at the first meeting of the SIC following May’s local government election.

In the build-up to the meeting she offered a “new vision” for the council to her colleagues, which included an emphasis in making things more accessible.

The main council meetings can now be watched back online, but Macdonald said she feels parts of the job are still a “bit of mystery” to some in the community.

“I think we need to try and find a way – I don’t know what that way is necessarily – about how do we make the council and the councillors more open to the public, so they know exactly what we’re doing and exactly how we’re spending our time,” she said.

“I suppose not down to the detail, but just like how do you spend your day, what have you done this week. And just make it more accessible to people.

“There’s no big secrets – we are very open about what we do. But I think it’s just about how do we demystify it a little bit more.”

Macdonald – a depute leader under Steven Coutts for the last four years – added that building relationships within the council is an early priority in her tenure.

She feels a key part of the leader role is to bring everyone together in the chamber.

“So, it’s not necessarily about all the skills I have or all the views I hold, it’s about representing the views of everybody within the council membership, and making sure that we harness the skills and knowledge that everybody has,” Macdonald said.

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“It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think teamwork is really important, and making sure that everybody feels part of that team.”

One key topic which pervaded the election campaign was fixed links, with most – if not all – candidates appearing to be in favour of tunnels as replacements for some of Shetland’s inter-island ferries.

Shetland Islands Council hopes to attract Levelling Up funding for a new Fair Isle ferry. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

But Macdonald said the immediate priority is replacing the Fair Isle ferry, which is the subject of a funding bid to the UK Government.

“I think fixed links are obviously something that everyone within the council would like to see, but I think we have to be realistic about where that is in reality,” she said.

“Going forward we have a ferry fleet that is ageing and we need solutions to some of our ferries now. 

“Obviously we will speak to anybody who is willing to talk to us about the solutions and fixed links could be one of those solutions.”

Another political topic in the chamber is more local decision-making, with councillors voting in 2020 to explore ways to achieve political and financial self-determination.

On the face of it that quest has gone quiet – the Covid pandemic is said to have stunted progress – but Macdonald said the new council now needs to discuss its collective view on the matter.

“But I can’t see why anybody would stand for council who doesn’t want to make decisions locally and closer to the people that they affect,” she said.

“I definitely think it’s something we need to have a new discussion about, and especially in light of an independence referendum potentially coming next year – where does that sit within Shetland, where do we sit with that, what’s our priorities?”

Like the North Isles, Macdonald’s Shetland North ward did not have a contest at the polls in May because only three candidates went for the three seats.

The leader said this was “really poor for local democracy”.

Macdonald was involved in the last council’s push for greater diversity among candidates, including encouraging more women to stand.

While there are some younger councillors now in the fold, there are the same number of women as last term – although there is a by-election looming for the vacant seat in the North Isles.

Macdonald became the council’s first female leader in May, while ward colleague Andrea Manson was also appointed the first female convener.

Macdonald and Manson make history as they take on top council jobs

But while it is a step in the right direction, getting a more diverse range of councillors is “not going quick enough”, Macdonald said.

“You need people to be part of it, and you need people to stand, that’s the reality,” she added.

Speaking about becoming the first female leader, the councillor said: “It is important because I think it doesn’t matter what your gender is to do the role – it’s an important role, but it’s important to anybody.

“Obviously it’s just a sign that we’re moving in the right direction. it’s good to see a female convener as well. I think it’s just a sign of how things need to be – it doesn’t matter what your gender is, if you can do the role you can do the role.”

Macdonald is being supported by depute leader Gary Robinson, who – as a past leader – has plenty of experience of life in the council chamber.

As the last depute she shared an officer with her predecessor Coutts for four years, so Macdonald says she is well-versed on life as a leader.

“I didn’t come into the role with any illusions – I know it’s not an easy position, but I’m also aware of how important it is to Shetland,” she said. “I’m very determined to do it as well as I can.”

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