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Features / ‘Ten years is quite a long time’: ex-leader Coutts reflects on life after the council chamber

New COPE Ltd CEO Steven Coutts discusses the successful social enterprise, life as a councillor and the pitfalls of social media

Steven Coutts outside the Shetland Home Co. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

IT WAS a case of swapping the council for COPE Ltd for Steven Coutts earlier this year – and it appears he has not looked back since.

He held the leader role, the top job in the council chamber, since 2018.

Speaking last week, Coutts – who is based in Weisdale – is looking relaxed, sporting a COPE hoodie rather than the suit he was more familiar with wearing on council duties.

He describes his time in chief executive role leading the social enterprise, which provides employment and skill development for adults with learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorders, as being “great” so far.

It may feel a bit of a contrast to his time as leader of the council, during which he felt he had no choice but to delete social media after receiving personal abuse online.

“I started the post in the end of January. In a way it feels like I’ve just started, and in another way it feels like I’ve always been here,” he says.

“It’s really good to come in and see people smiling because they love the opportunity that COPE are providing for them, and that’s what it’s all about.”

COPE Ltd staff during the social enterprise’s branding relaunch in 2014 which saw the Scrapstore being renamed Shetland Home Co.

In some ways it is hard to imagine that the leading charity is already on the cusp of celebrating its 25th anniversary next year.

The organisation has expanded to offer a diverse variety of enterprises: a garden centre, the well established soap business and the second-hand emporium Shetland Home Co.

The charity’s annual turnover is more than £1 million, which is primarily made up of sales and donations, along with funding from Shetland Charitable Trust and a contract from the council to deliver skills development.

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Coutts says overall the staff total is between 40 and 50, and 100 placements – half-day sessions – are provided each week.

He suggests there may remain some misconceptions around COPE – particularly whether or not the charity is part of the council.

“We deliver a contract for the council in terms of providing the skills development opportunities, but we are not part of the council,” Coutts said.

“We’re a standalone charity and company in our own right, and we have a board of directors who oversee the charity as well.”

Coutts was first elected as a councillor in 2012, covering the North Isles before switching to the west for the next election in 2017.

The time was right to move on – “ten years is actually quite a long time – I think change is good for all concerned” – and it is fair to say he has not been glued to the online broadcasts of council meetings this term.

Much of his time as leader was spent grappling with reduced government funding, something experienced across the country.

“All through my time of being a councillor we were dealing with real terms cuts, which has always been challenging,” he reflects.

“But over that period, I think we did maintain the high quality services in Shetland that the folk really look for us to provide, and I think that’s a success.”

He points to other highlights including getting the Scottish Government to fully fund the council’s deficit in running its inter-island ferries, and the construction of the new Anderson High School and Eric Gray Centre.

Council leader Steven Coutts signing the islands growth deal in 2021. Photo: SIC

But despite the highs, there were some lows.

His time in the council saw social media rise in prominence, but he ended up removing his own personal accounts after receiving abuse – which was also seen by his family.

During his leader role the construction of the controversial and divisive Viking Energy wind farm began on Coutts’ doorstep, and despite the main decision-making taking place before his time, it was the source of much of the vitriol.

“I had to come off social media because of personal abuse that I got – which my family was reading, which is really regrettable,” he says.

“So that’s one of the great things about coming into COPE and not being in that sphere now, is that I can actually go on social media. Which, I think, is a sad reflection.

“It’s not unique to Shetland…but I think when it’s in an electronic means people do become a little more comfortable saying things that they wouldn’t say to you if you were meeting them in the street or in the shops.

“That is something that I do not miss. In instances it was quite hurtful.”

Coutts said there is “no doubt councillors should be accountable and scrutinised” but there is a line that should not be crossed.

“People should have freedom of speech, but when it gets personal and it’s impacting yourself and your family and your colleagues, that’s a step too far.”

Meanwhile a key reflection for the ex-leader is that he can now fully recognise what he calls a “sheer inability” to switch off as a councillor.

There are the meetings and seminars – and reading the agenda packs which often span hundreds of pages – while they can be contacted by constituents and the media.

“You are very close to the community, which is a good thing in terms of representing the community, but also you do not have the ability to switch off,” he says.

But on the whole Coutts enjoyed his time in the role, including the more rewarding tasks involving sorting out constituents’ problems.

So does he have any advice to those thinking of standing in the by-election in his old ward in November?

“I would go in with open eyes,” he replies, adding that he would be happy to chat to anyone interested.

“I wouldn’t change my decision to stand for council, but what I probably would have liked I guess was more in depth conversations with the councillors of that time to really understand how it impacts you outside the council.”

Back to the new day job, and with the 25th anniversary milestone looming things are continuing to look up for COPE.

“I think there is still a demand for additional opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities, and we’ll continue to work with partners to see what we can do to increase the opportunity,” Coutts says.

“Because there’s absolutely no doubt that what we’re offering here is great for those individuals, and long may that continue.”

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