Shetland Islands Council candidates should reflect better gender and age mix
Two of SIC’s three female elected members have called for a better gender mix of candidates to the next council.
Central member Vaila Wishart and town councillor Amanda Westlake have decried the shortfall of women elected to represent constituents in the existing authority.
Their comments come as current councillors begin to decide whether to throw their hats in the ring for another five-year term at the coalface of local politics.
Ms Wishart – who chairs the education and families committee – has stood by her decision made at 2012 to only stand for one term, and will not seek re-election to the council next May.
She described having three female councillors in a body of 22 as “a disgrace”.
“I always said it was only going to be for five years. I’ve always made it quite clear that was what I intend to do,” she said when approached by The Shetland Times.
“In some ways, it would be good to have another bash at it, but I have other things I want to do.
“One of the things I am concerned about and want to do something about is to try and persuade more young people to stand for the council and more women. I think having only three women out of 22 councillors is a disgrace, and it isn’t representative.”
Ms Wishart believes new councillors in the next authority will face a steep learning curve, as they grapple with how to use dwindling resources coming from Holyrood.
“Having made many efficiencies and quite a few cuts it’s going to be quite a bit more difficult to make decisions about what may have to go,” she said.
Ms Westlake does, however, plan to stand again.
“I think you need to put yourself back in the firing line, whether you get elected or not,” she said, adding she enjoyed working for her constituents.
“I hope, in the next election also, that there is going to be more equality and gender balance.
“Just now it is incredibly outweighed – 19 versus three. I would like to see a lot more women, and why not? I stood in 2012 as an independent, single female and I’ve managed fine.
“I also hope there is going to be a good percentage of the younger population.”
The council’s other female member, Andrea Manson, said she had suffered health issues but hoped to stand again.
She was less concerned about gender balance than the others – although she admitted more flexible working arrangements would help. She added she would like to see younger people in the debating chamber.
“Men are not taking advantage in any way. We’re not down-trodden any more. It’s a difficult thing for someone with a family to do. It’s very difficult, unless you’re retired or self-employed, to be a councillor at all.
“I think we could do with some younger ones. They have a different view of life. You need to have a good mixture. You don’t necessarily want retired folk who have only ever known what it’s like to work for the council or to an organisation where you get your wages at the end of the week regardless, because that folk have never really lived in the real world.”
She added legislation surrounding data protection made it more challenging for elected members to help their constituents.
“Things like data protection and confidentiality means you really can’t help folk like you should be able to because the officials and the staff are not able to speak to you about things unless you actually go along
with the individual that needs help.”
Also likely to stand is depute leader Michael Stout.
“Having put the effort in, I wouldn’t like just to walk away from it,” he said. Leader Gary Robinson will be throwing his hat in the ring for another term, although convener Malcolm Bell said he was undecided at this stage.
Mr Stout’s predecessor as deputy leader, Billy Fox, said he was keeping “an open mind” on seeking re-election, and added he would decide nearer the time.
It may not come as a surprise to hear Jonathan Wills will not seek re-election in 2017. The Lerwick South member has already said a number of times, even from the chamber, that he will not be back.
This week he said elected members were “paid peanuts” and did not even make anything on expenses”.
He said he would miss his constituents – adding he could only think of three out of the 4,000 in his ward who had not been a pleasure to represent. He declined to say who the three were, however.
“I shall be 70 in June, and I think it’s time some younger, brighter people took over.
“I’ve had a total of 11 years as a councillor and I think that’s plenty. I’ve done my best, but I certainly won’t be standing again as a councillor.
“The problem is only retired people can afford to be a councillor, because the wage is, before taxes, £17,000 a year. Anyone with a young family can’t think about that. It’s quite difficult.”
Also not standing is Lerwick North member Allan Wishart, who is coming towards the end of his second term at the SIC.
He said the current council had operated more successfully than the previous one.
Mr Wishart added “everybody in Shetland” should do a spell on the council.
“There is so much criticism of the council and much of it,
I’m sure, is justified. But much of it is really based on a complete lack of understanding of how the council works, the size it is, and the range of services. It’s a big organisation to run and it has to be run democratically and that very often takes much longer to bottom out than what a commercial operation could do.
“It’s been two five-year terms and I’ll be 72. So, personally, for the length of time and that age … that’s me.”
Also not standing is North Mainland member Drew Ratter, who decided at the beginning of this council that it would be his last.
West Side councillor Frank Robertson said he had made “absolutely no decision, so far”.
Cecil Smith has also not yet made up his mind, as well as Davie Sandison, Robert Henderson, Mark Burgess, Peter Campbell, Theo Smith and Alastair Cooper.
Allison Duncan is undecided, too, although his indecision is purely down to health issues which he insisted on having detailed. He said he had suffered pneumonia twice, had two hernia operations and three operations on his bowel. Those procedures, he said, accounted from his absence from a number of town hall meetings.
George Smith said it was “more than likely” he would stand, but would make a final decision nearer the time.
Steven Coutts and Gary Cleaver failed to respond to messages left by The Shetland Times.