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Council / SIC depute leader suggests gaining additional powers would be challenging

A SENIOR elected member has played down the likelihood of Shetland Islands Council being given extra powers.

Lerwick North and Bressay councillor Gary Robinson, who is the local authority’s depute leader, said it was “challenging” for anyone to get additional powers, including the Scottish Government.

He also said the past record of the government overturning some SIC planning decisions because they went against the council’s own policy would not stand the local authority in “good stead” if it was to ask for more powers in those kind of areas.

Under Scotland’s Islands Act, which was passed in 2018, councils are able to request that functions are devolved to them, or that Scottish ministers transfer an additional function, duty or responsibility.

At a meeting of the full council on Wednesday, Scottish Greens councillor Alex Armitage suggested energy could be area in which to try for additional powers, given that developers are “knocking on our door” in the transition away from fossil fuels.

“I think we can make a strong case for extra powers to be onboarded to Shetland, and I don’t think the perceived difficulty of that should hold us back,” he said.

SIC depute leader Gary Robinson. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“We have to request it and ask for it, and I think working with our parliamentary representatives on this would be a good next step.”

Back in 2020 the majority of SIC councillors voted to explore ways of achieving political and financial self-determination.

At Wednesday’s meeting Armitage asked what the next steps would be in that process.

Chief executive Maggie Sandison said she was unable to step into areas that are political.

But she did say a seminar had been held discuss the Islands Act’s provision for seeking additional powers.

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However, only one councillor came back with suggestions afterwards.

“You have a political motion passed by the council – I can support you by giving you advice and guidance about how you can pursue that motion, but I can’t do the work for you,” Sandison said.

Robinson said it was “changed days” since the Our Islands Our Future campaign, which launched in 2013 and sought to empower Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

That happened around the time of the Scottish independence referendum – a time when constitutional matters were the subject of much debate.

But Robinson said a second referendum appears to be off the cards, and attempts by the Scottish Government to get more powers from Westminster have “fallen on deaf ears”.

He said areas Shetland might want more control over could include the Crown Estate, planning and energy consents.

However, Robinson said even Scottish ministers deciding on energy consents have to abide by UK legislation.

“I think at the present moment in time that level of change is incredibly difficult,” he said.

“I think we need to be more creative around what it is we do actually seek if we were to use that power at all.

“I think we need to be seen to be using the powers that we’ve got to their maximum extent before we go seeking others. And we also need to be deploying those powers competently.”

The discussion was watched by moderator of the Shetland Autonomy Action Team, James Parton.

He claimed afterwards that Robinson in effect prevented or ruled out the council from “striking at the heart of Westminster and/or Holyrood” by seeking extra powers.

Paton said additional powers could help Shetland deal with global renewable companies, as well as in areas such as energy costs, housing and transport.

The remarks were made during an update report on the SIC’s Our Ambition corporate plan – and Paton claimed Robinson showed no ambition.

“We are, as Shetlanders, being done a great disservice,” he said. “Everyone should watch, with critical eyes and ears, over the Easter holidays, this potentially seminal, but missed opportunity due to a lack of leadership and will to act.”

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