Departing senior SIC councillor Betty Fullerton is urging more women to step up to the plate ahead of next Thursday’s deadline for new council candidates.
Out of more than 20 confirmed names for the 3rd May election, current Lerwick North member Caroline Miller is the only female.
Among the other four women councillors elected in 2007, Iris Hawkins stepped down last autumn, while Laura Baisley, West Side member Florence Grains and Mrs Fullerton are calling it a day.
Mrs Fullerton this week suggested the “macho environment” surrounding business in Lerwick Town Hall could be deterring many women from standing for election.
“I’m very concerned about that,” she told The Shetland Times. “I wonder if it’s got something to do with the fact that maybe not many people realise that it could be a fairly flexible job – maybe women are thinking [they couldn’t] manage the evening work because of family.
“The council probably is a fairly macho environment, but I’d absolutely urge Shetland women to stand up and be counted, and change that, absolutely – they’ve so much to offer.
“If you look way back to the 18th and 19th century, books were being written and it was commented on how independent the women were and how much they kept everything going when the men were away at sea. I don’t know what’s happened to them. They need to be coming forward.”
Developing a theme of dragging Shetland society’s attitude towards the family into the 21st century, Mrs Fullerton wants to see the next council make the provision of better childcare one of its key priorities.
“We all have to accept that the days of one parent staying at home to look after the bairns and the other as the breadwinner have gone,” the children’s services committee chairwoman said. “In most cases two parents are needing to work to support the family.”
She wants to see some of the type of financial assistance which has been ploughed into traditional industries such as fishing and agriculture now being targeted towards childcare.
Mrs Fullerton subscribes to the theory that Scandinavian attitudes towards family life are more enlightened – “they do have the right idea, the family comes first but the state supports the family”, she said.
As well as aiding and abetting the development of private childcare enterprises, she thinks opening hours at schools ought to be extended at the beginning and end of the school day to suit working parents. A pilot scheme along those lines has been trialled in Mossbank, and she thinks such “wraparound care” should be adopted more widely.
“Parents don’t mind paying a reasonable amount of money for it provided they are able to continue their career and they’re able to have a salary at the end of it,” Mrs Fullerton said.
“You need to have some sort of seamless provision for bairns, particularly when they’re young, so that they can be dropped off and transferred to the next method of looking after them and supporting them before their parents pick them up.”
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, many pensioners are outraged about proposals to shut the Freefield lunch club and move towards frozen meals on wheels. She does not want to prejudge a review into meals on wheels, saying nobody should “jump to conclusions” about how they ought to be delivered.
Acknowledging that some of the cutbacks will be unpopular, she said a number of the decisions taken at last month’s budget-setting meeting were difficult for everyone but, without “backbone and determination”, totting up £30 million-worth of savings would have been impossible.
Her concern on care for the elderly is whether there will be enough residential home places. While she backs the drift towards delivering more care at home, she is “not entirely convinced that we’re going to be able to carry out the level of care that we need in some people’s homes, because they’re not all going to be suitable”.
Mrs Fullerton believes elderly people are often more technologically literate than they are given credit for. The increased use of IT for diagnoses may in some cases mean less social contact for lonely pensioners, but she says the NHS and SIC are responsible primarily for care.
“Maybe we all spend too long sitting in our own homes watching TV, and I’m probably guilty of it too, and don’t think about vulnerable people out there,” she said.
Citing family reasons for her decision to stand down after a single term as a Central Ward councillor, Mrs Fullerton says the flak she received over the closure of Scalloway school’s secondary department did not influence her thoughts. The 62-year-old former NHS Shetland chief says seeking a return to the chamber at a future election is “certainly not out of my mind”.
Last month councillors approved another wholesale look at the islands’ education system, likely to result in fresh proposals to shut several schools. Although Mrs Fullerton voted against the Scalloway closure twice, as she felt it was being “targeted”, she does think the junior high model has now had its day.
She said: “I put forward a motion [two years ago] that we should have two high schools in Shetland, Brae and Anderson High, and I believe now that that is the right way forward given the number of pupils we have.
“I believe now that the junior high method of education is not the best way, given the Curriculum for Excellence changes and where we are financially, to deliver the best secondary education for our bairns.”
She accepts Mid Yell may initially be viewed as a different case given a brand new school was opened there only recently. “It may well be a phased approach and Yell could contribute to that,” she said, going on to suggest that shutting junior highs could safeguard many of the smaller primary schools which may otherwise be under threat in the local authority’s quest to shed £3 million from its education spend.
“I would like to see support for continuing with primary education as far as possible in the community, whereas secondary education is better delivered to a larger mass of pupils,” Mrs Fullerton said.
She would like to see education minister Mike Russell’s commission on rural education take on board the feelings of many communities about schools’ economic importance. A minimum pupil roll ought to be set below which schools should be shut, but “the length of journey and the remoteness of individual locations” must always be taken into account.
The consultation process on closures should be “less prescriptive” because it has proved to be “hugely onerous” on staff and has left parents and members of the public feeling they are not being listened to. “There must be a better way, although I don’t have all the answers,” she said.
Reflecting on the past five years, she says the Accounts Commission hearing which followed David Clark’s troubled nine-month tenure as chief executive was undoubtedly “the low point”. But the local authority has recovered “reasonably well” from the damaging schisms of two years ago.
“The council has moved on, the culture is changing and there is more of a feeling of the staff and members being in it together, and if that can be built upon then the future of Shetland looks reasonably bright,” she added.
Though not wishing to be drawn on Tavish Scott’s call for a debate on the islands’ constitutional future should Scotland become independent, Mrs Fullerton accepts the last decade and a half may have eroded public faith in Shetland’s ability to run its own affairs.
“It’s very unfortunate that the council has had so much money and spent [too] much money over the years, but you’ve got to hand it to the people in power that the quality of living has been second to none,” she said.
“It’s unfortunate that this has to be the council that’s had to pull in the purse strings [but] I think future councillors will be able to demonstrate that Shetland can govern its own affairs.”