Jostling for the council’s twin leadership mantle has started as Shetland’s 13 new independent members begin learning the SIC ropes, having won election alongside nine sitting councillors at last week’s local elections.
West Side councillor Gary Robinson – a persistent critic of the last administration – today told The Shetland Times he was making no secret of his interest in the position of political leader.
Lerwick North member Allan Wishart, who was re-elected with a substantially reduced share of the vote seven days ago, confirmed he was also “interested” in the role, previously held by the retired Josie Simpson.
The two names being most frequently linked with replacing Sandy Cluness as the convener, or “civic head”, are former police chief Malcolm Bell, who won a landslide 56 per cent of the vote in Lerwick North and is understood to be keen on the post, and second-term Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith.
Mr Bell said: “The new council must quickly build trust and gain the confidence of the public. The leadership of the new council should reflect the result and be a balance between returning and new members.”
The first formal meeting of the new council is on Wednesday 23rd May, when the leadership and all other appointments will be negotiated. As well as senior office-bearers, appointments to all council committees and external bodies are to be agreed.
Privately, some councillors are arguing that both senior posts should – at least for the first two years – go to members with previous SIC experience. Others contend that clear blue water must be placed between this council and the damaging episodes of the past five years, and that appointing two of the old guard would send the wrong message to the public.
The new members began a series of induction seminars about the SIC’s labyrinthine ways on Monday and will next week receive a briefing on the local authority’s financial position. The last administration agreed in principle to cut around £30 million from the council’s annual budget in the next two years, though several election candidates called for the pace of the cuts to be slowed.
Chief executive Alistair Buchan said there had been “very good engagement” so far from the new faces: “In my experience the early stages of a new council are absolutely critical for setting the tone and the right style of team-working for the council for years to come,” he said. “If we can get it right now it will make a massive difference for the next five years, and I think members have bought into that message.”
Early indications are that councillors are keen for a mechanism to be put in place allowing senior political posts to be re-appraised two years into the council’s term of office. “There is already a view in the council that they want to look at that,” Mr Buchan said, adding that following some “tweaking” councillors may conduct a fuller review of the decision-making structure in a year’s time.
Mr Buchan said he was looking forward to having a new leadership in place later this month. His own position will come under discussion shortly, too: he is currently contracted to the SIC until this autumn, but the deal to bring him here from Orkney included an option of extending his stay to take in the first full year of the new council.
He said: “My profile in Shetland, because of the difficulties of the past, has had to be higher than I would have wished, but I’m really looking forward to getting back to normal with the leadership of the council in place and supporting them to get the best results for Shetland.”
The new council will face far-reaching decisions on ferries, schools and social care early in its term, while some of those elected want to see the brakes put on the pace of the planned cutbacks.
On that point, Mr Buchan said: “We’ve listened very closely to what’s been said throughout the election campaign about that. I’m not going to pre-empt the new council. It’s their decision, not mine – my job is to advise.
“There will be some scope for adjustment, but at the same time the financial reality will continue to mean that we will still have to make very significant, in fact unprecedented, savings. So it will be a very fine balance that the new council will have to strike between addressing that concern and still putting in place a budget that doesn’t bankrupt Shetland.”