The playing field for this May’s council elections is becoming a little clearer, with five new candidates putting their heads above the parapet this week – including former police chief Malcolm Bell and ex-Shetland College director George Smith.
Others taking the plunge ahead of the deadline for declarations on 29th March are former teacher and Hayfield official Jim Reyner, architect Theo Smith and Yell man Steven Coutts. All five men are to stand on independent tickets. No new female faces have declared their candidacies yet.
While those five are seeking to enter the political arena, the number of current SIC councillors set to exit the stage has swelled to nine. Experienced and prominent Lerwick South member Gussie Angus, who unsuccessfully stood for the local authority’s political leadership last year, is bowing out.
So too is North Mainland councillor Bill Manson, while his constituency colleague Addie Doull is understood to have indicated to his local community council that he has had his fill of the town hall chamber after a single term.
Mr Manson had been wavering but has now decided to call it a day. He is not sure whether he wants to remain involved with Viking Energy (he is company chairman) and Shetland Charitable Trust, which he also chairs.
Now 71, Mr Angus said he had decided some time ago to bow out. “I never had any intentions at the very start of this council of standing again – that was my intention then and that’s my intention now,” he said. “I signed up for a four year council, and we got a five year council. I think it’d have been better all round if it had ended when planned in 2011.”
A raft of councillors – including political leader Josie Simpson and convener Sandy Cluness – had already decided to say their farewells. The other four definitely not seeking re-election are Laura Baisley, Jim Budge, Andrew Hughson and Rick Nickerson. West Side veteran Florence Grains is also thought unlikely to stand, although she remains officially undecided.
The eight councillors who have concluded they do have the appetite for another five years in public life are: Caroline Miller and Allan Wishart (Lerwick North); Jim Henry and Jonathan Wills (Lerwick South); David Sandison (Shetland Central); Allison Duncan (Shetland South); Gary Robinson and Frank Robertson (Shetland West).
That leaves only Alastair Cooper, Betty Fullerton, Mrs Grains, Robert Henderson and Cecil Smith to clarify their positions.
Theo Smith has been a partner in architects PJP for over quarter of a century, an association he plans to end if he is elected to serve the people of the West Side, where he lives. As former chairman of the local Liberal Democrats his political allegiance is no secret, but the 59-year-old said it seemed “kinda pointless standing on a party ticket in a non-political council”.
The SIC has just agreed to a huge programme of spending cuts over the next two years, and Mr Smith is worried about the pace and scale of those cutbacks.
“I think personally that we’re cutting too much, too fast and I fear that by doing that we could wreck our economy, which I think is far more fragile than a lot of people think it is,” he said.
His involvement in the construction industry prompts him to voice serious fears about the consequences of the council signing up to the “HubCo” model, a public-private partnership venture designed to help local authorities get schools and other large projects built.
“I’m concerned that a lot of money may be creamed off by companies outwith Shetland and leave the scraps for the local construction industry in Shetland, which is a huge employer,” Theo Smith said. “That worries me greatly.”
His namesake George Smith, who retired as college director a year ago after nearly three decades’ employment with the SIC, is standing as an independent in the South Mainland. He positioned himself as a strong supporter of public services and vowed to work together with other councillors in an “open and honest manner” if elected.
“It will be important for the new council to be a ‘listening’ council, taking on board community views in an inclusive way but, at the same time, providing strong and decisive leadership,” he said.
George Smith said that when making spending cuts, it was crucial people within the SIC were conscious of its wider role in the economy too, because “any dramatic moves, without planning, can destabilise things very, very quickly”.
Ex-councillor Drew Ratter is trying to form a group of like-minded people to stand together in May, and George Smith said he was heartened by “the commitment shown to working as a team by those who have already declared themselves as candidates”.
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox, whose views on the divisive Viking Energy windfarm project are the polar opposite of Mr Ratter’s, has criticised the Ollaberry man’s manoeuvrings, however.
Although he agrees that candidates should commit to working together where there is common ground, Mr Fox – who is standing in Lerwick South – feels that Mr Ratter’s failure to get in touch with him suggests their respective views “may not entirely gel”.
“The group he proposes could therefore be more of a selected cabal rather than a forum designed to incorporate the views of the full council,” he suggested.
One of those up against Mr Ratter in the North Mainland ward will be former teacher and education official Jim Reyner. Writer and former Shetland Life editor Malachy Tallack is also mulling over whether to contest that ward.
Mr Reyner, who lives in Muckle Roe with wife Linda, moved to Shetland in 2001 as head teacher at Burravoe, before moving into officialdom soon after. In a varied career in education he has worked with age groups from infants to adults, teaching in schools in the UK and the Middle East.
He said: “There have been far too many negative stories in the press lately – we have to accept that we are no longer the wealthy authority of the oil-boom days, but we must avoid the temptation to throw out everything that is so good about Shetland, simply to save money in the short term.
“The future of our services for our most vulnerable groups, including the vitally important voluntary sector, will be at risk unless a more positive and pragmatic approach to solving our problems is adopted.”
Announcing his candidacy for the Lerwick North ward, Mr Bell immediately vowed this week to fight any attempt nationally to merge the SIC with other local authorities.
He feels such a prospect would be an “unmitigated disaster” for Shetland.
Calling for “strong, effective and cohesive leadership”, Mr Bell warned the SIC must guard against sleepwalking into a future where the community is “reduced to sending a handful of representatives to meetings of some future strategic ‘Highlands and Islands Authority’ in Inverness”.
Mr Bell retired from the Northern Constabulary in late 2009, having become the first Shetlander to hold the islands’ chief police post. He has remained active in various walks of public life, including sitting on NHS Shetland’s board and acting as honorary sheriff.
“We are, without a doubt, stronger together,” he said. “If elected, I would continue to strive, with others, to ensure partnership working is as effective as possible in order to maintain and where possible improve standards and remove barriers to delivery.”
Weisdale-based Mr Coutts is standing as an independent in his native North Isles, having been raised in Yell and lived there for quarter of a century.
A member of the Scottish Greens, the 29-year-old is the youngest declared candidate for 3rd May by more than a decade. A business consultant working mainly with social enterprises and voluntary organisations, he has regularly carried out work for the Energy Saving Trust.
The SNP has said it will field at least two candidates in Lerwick, while the Conservatives are also thought to be planning to contest some seats.