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Council / Is there a ‘growing apathy’ towards local democracy?

THERE appears to be a “growing apathy” towards local democracy, Shetland Islands Council has said in a response to a Scottish Government consultation.

The council said it feels local government is reaching a “critical point” as election candidate numbers continue to fall, and a lack of diversity remains a key issue.

The council was responding to consultation by the Scottish Government on its national islands plan, which was introduced in 2019.

It said feedback from prospective candidates as well as candidate numbers signalled a growing passivity towards local democracy in the islands.

At the last SIC election in 2022, the North Isles ward only had two people come forward for its three seats, while Shetland North was uncontested with three candidates going for the three spots.

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

Shetland’s 18 community councils have also traditionally suffered from low interest in elections.

The SIC added in its consultation response: “Every opportunity should therefore be taken to emphasise the importance of local democracy and, using a new National Islands Plan to positively empower local government, we feel would be welcome.”

Speaking this week, SIC leader Emma Macdonald – who was one of the three Shetland North members elected to the council without constituents going to the ballot box – said uncontested wards are not good for local democracy.

“I think the work the council has undertaken on widening access to local democracy is really important and we need to continue that, not just in the run up to an election but as a continuing ongoing topic,” she said.

“The council have worked with Elect Her to encourage more women to stand and to understand the barriers that they may face but it is clear our challenge is much wider than having equal gender representation.”

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While the top two posts in the council chamber – leader and convener – are held by women, the gender split among the 23 councillors lies heavily towards men.

Macdonald said local government is “really important, but it can be hard to promote to a wider group of people”.

“This current council does have a wider age demographic which is a positive but those members are juggling full-time jobs and council commitments, so it isn’t always easy,” she added.

The salary of a councillor is nationally set at a base rate of £20,099, but those who chair committees or have roles like leader are paid more.

Macdonald said the next council elections “feel like a long way away yet, but if we want people to be thinking about it I think we need to highlight the importance of having effective local representation and the importance of local government”.

She highlights how local government provides essential services, and the decisions taken by elected members helps to shape their future.

The Shetland North councillor said the role is “incredibly varied and a real privilege” but can have its challenges.

“We need to try and remove any barriers that prevent people from standing,” Macdonald said.

“I’m always happy to talk to anyone about the role a councillor and the positive experience I’ve had during the last six years.”

Last year Shetland South councillor Alex Armitage – who also works as a paediatrician – floated the idea of holding more meetings in the evenings to help those with other jobs, something which he said is normal practice at many other UK local authorities.

Shetland South councillor Alex Armitage.

Speaking this week, the Green member said there is a need to make being a councillor more accessible to everyone – “particularly young people, women and minorities”.

“I know some amazing people in Shetland who would have been much better councillors than me – but sadly they didn’t feel able for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Armitage also suggested changing the rules to enable people who are employed by the SIC to be elected as councillors, potentially through some form of sabbatical arrangement.

For the last couple of years the SIC has streamed its meetings online to the public, while elected members are able to take part remotely.

In 2022’s election more than 35 people went forward for the 23 seats on offer.

The ward with the most candidates was Shetland West, with eight vying for the two seats.

However John Leask, who came second in that vote, stood down a few months later and triggered a by-election.

A by-election was also hold in the North Isles to find a third member.

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