Shetland Islands Council is to object to a boundary commission proposal to redraw council wards that would see Gulberwick and Quarff added to the central ward and Shetland West extended all the way to the North Sea with the inclusion of Girlsta, Laxfirth and Dales Voe.
The changes could potentially see wards redrawn only a year before the Islands Bill becomes legislation – itself containing the potential for revised boundaries among its electoral provisions.
The council will draft a letter asking the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland to hang fire with its proposals until after the Islands Bill has been adopted.
The letter will contain an example that Gulberwick is socially and civically more strongly aligned with Lerwick than with the central ward.
At a special meeting of the council yesterday, where chief executive Mark Boden prompted councillors to tell the commission exactly what they thought, Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills suggested a revision, to a draft circulated to councillors, that they should reject the commission’s proposal.
Dr Wills said the council should make it clear the proposal put undue weight on arithmetical balance and not enough on serving the good of communities. “We object to this. We think it has bad consequences,” he added.
The boundary commission’s plan would shift Gulberwick and Quarff from Lerwick South and Shetland South respectively to Shetland Central to try and balance the numbers of electors with representatives.
In turn the west ward would take the three other areas from the central ward to improve the numbers balance further.
Dr Wills said there were no facilities in Gulberwick. “People in Gulberwick go to school in Lerwick, they go to the doctor in Lerwick and they use the council’s services in Lerwick.
“Have we got a case for saying that they have got this completely wrong and that they have misunderstood the sociology and geography?”
Shetland South councillor George Smith said that Quarff would end up with its third least likely ward as it looked to the South Mainland or Lerwick rather than Scalloway.
Shetland Central councillor David Sandison said that a disparity of 40 or 50 people in a ward was “totally insignificant compared with the disproportionate effect of this proposal”.
Mr Sandison said the proposal had no regard to the community empowerment act and that the council’s response should make specific mention of the legislation.
SIC executive manager of legal services Jan Riise said Lerwick South had one of the biggest deviations from electoral parity in Scotland and Shetland South was not far behind. Lerwick North, by contrast, was almost “perfect”.
He pointed out to councillors that a previous case where the SIC had taken the commission to a judicial review over boundaries had ended in failure despite the council arguing its point very strongly. The judges had decided that the statutory need for electoral parity trumped the need for the boundary commission to heed the impact on communities.
Mr Riise said: “We spent a lot of money trying to prove that they had not regarded the community … we pushed that further than any other council and failed to win in court.
“Parity is statutory and the way the legislation is worded makes it clear that one trumps the other.”
In answer to a question from Dr Wills whether he had ever received a complaint for someone aggrieved at being under or over-represented by lack of electoral parity, Mr Riise conceded he had many complaints but “not one of that sort”.
He said that he was not faulting the boundary commission, but they had to take an approach that was consistent throughout Scotland.
That included wards in the south where 90 per cent of the electorate could not name their local councillor as well as Shetland where a councillor might know the better part of their constituents by name.
Lerwick South member Peter Campbell said the status quo should be kept until the Islands Bill passed parliament. “It seems to me that we may have a change in 2017 and then change in 2018.”
Mr Boden said that it was a “perfectly reasonable proposal” to ask the commission to delay its changes, though he doubted if they would.
The islands minister, Mr Riise said, had regarded the Islands Bill as an opportunity through “islands proofing” to fix some of the damage that might have been done in the past.
Among the changes that it could usher is greater flexibility of councillor numbers per ward. It had been suggested this could be as few as one – which would be ideal for some islands – and as many as five.
Council leader Gary Robinson moved that they send the objection and was seconded by Dr Wills.
Dr Wills said later: “They [the boundary commission] are very good at arithmetic but not very good at geography. They say they are obliged legally to take account of community ties and in the case of Gulberwick its very clear its ties are with Lerwick.”
Community councils acknowledged at a meeting in April that any change to electoral wards might prompt an examination of community council boundaries, Mr Riise told members.