Shetlanders were taking to the polling stations today to vote in a crunch local election which will dictate the SIC’s political direction over the next five years.
There will be no late-night count this year: the scanning and counting of ballots will begin at 9am tomorrow morning in Lerwick Town Hall, with the West Side the first scheduled declaration at around 9.45am.
Counting of the south and central wards should begin at 10am, followed by the North Isles and North Mainland at 11am and the two Lerwick wards at noon. All the results should be known by lunchtime.
To find out which of the 43 candidates have succeeded in winning the 22 available SIC berths from now until 2017, and for reaction to the results, visit www.shetlandtimes.co.uk.
All but four of the candidates – two running on an SNP ticket, and a pair of Scottish Christian Party hopefuls – are standing as independents. Just five of the 43 candidates are women.
With 11 councillors standing down, far-reaching changes to personnel within the council chamber are a certainty. Several incumbents yesterday seemed set for a tough battle to hang onto their seats.
It is the first local election since the SIC underwent the trauma of a two-day Accounts Commission hearing in 2010, following the debacle surrounding the short-lived tenure of former chief executive David Clark. The poll also comes as the local authority is in the middle of shedding around £30 million from its annual budget in the next two years, though many candidates want to phase the cuts in at a more leisurely pace.
While the campaign has been overshadowed by fresh developments relating to the Viking Energy windfarm, voters have also been making their feelings plain about the threat of more school closures, cuts to services for the elderly and potential council job losses. Perhaps more than ever before, those in rural communities are demanding an end to the centralisation of SIC services in Lerwick.
Returning officer Jan Riise told The Shetland Times voting had been “brisk” this morning, but said it was hard to tell whether turnout would be up or down. In 2007 the poll was twinned with the Scottish Parliament election, which led to chaos as tens of thousands of Scotland’s voters spoiled their ballots.
This is the first time for many years that standalone local government elections have been staged in Shetland. Five years ago, turnout ranged from a low of 51 per cent in Lerwick North to a high of 63 per cent in the North Isles. A greater proportion of Shetland’s electorate were expected to cast their votes yesterday than the circa 30 per cent turnout anticipated by political parties elsewhere in Scotland.
Mr Riise said everything had gone “as smoothly as we’d expect” at Shetland’s 37 polling stations. By Wednesday almost 70 per cent of the islands’ 2,000 postal votes had been returned: “If that’s an indication of how things are going it’s slightly more than usual,” he said. “I think attendance has been quite brisk this morning.”
Candidates and journalists were shown a trial of how the electronic voting equipment operates on Wednesday, and Mr Riise said the candidates had “seemed assured that this was an effective and quick way of doing the count”.
With the council’s leader Josie Simpson and convener Sandy Cluness calling time on their political careers, there has been much speculation about who may assume the leadership mantle.
Of those hoping for re-election, Alastair Cooper, Cecil Smith and Allan Wishart are among those being linked with senior political posts. But some prospective candidates have privately questioned whether any of those associated with the unpopular predecessor regime should “have the gall” to seek either of the top two positions.
Among those widely expected to win election to the SIC for the first time are ex-police chief Malcolm Bell in Lerwick North and former Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox in the South Mainland.