Long-standing community councillor Jim Gear has lamented the “sad” state of community councils in the isles after an unsuccessful round of nominations has once again left a number of a number of vacancies on multiple boards.
After insufficient nominations were received during the last round of recruitment 18 seats remain empty. Those vacancies are shared between eight of Shetland’s 18 community councils.
This is despite community councils having the power to pass judgement on proposals which may impact their community at an early stage, potentially altering the final outcome of a number of decisions which could affect the community.
Planning applications, for example, are presented to community councils with the views of the councillors and residents they represent being discussed and fed to the council’s planning department.
Community councils can also provide financial assistance to local groups, are often asked to contribute to consultation papers from agencies such as the NHS and have direct access to the councillors who often attend the meetings.
But none of this seems enough to generate interest in joining, with elections rarely required to decide who sits on the local community councils.
In some communities quite the opposite is happening, with the shortfall in members reaching as high as four on the worst affected boards – Delting and Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale.
The island community councils in Whalsay and Bressay have two vacancies each, as does the Sandwick Community Council.
Gulberwick, Quarff and Cunningsburgh also has two vacancies recently down from three following the nomination of Amy Garrick-Wright. Single vacancies also remain on the Fetlar and Scalloway community councils.
Jim Gear, a community councillor for over quarter of a century and the serving chairman of the Association of Shetland Community Councils, said that interest in community councils was often only aroused when a contentious issue was affecting a community.
Mr Gear, who is also a former Shetland Islands councillor, said that Bressay, for example, had had a hotly contested election a few years ago when emotions ran high over the proposed bridge.
He said: “It’s a bit sad if it’s only when something is contentious that people will come forward to represent their community.”
The answer sometimes mooted in community council meetings and even in the council chamber has been to grant more power to the community councils. Mr Gear, however, felt that the Community Empowerment Act recently introduced by the Scottish government already went some way towards that.
“The only thing that can be done is more publicity”, he suggested.
Mr Gear added: “We can only hope that more people will be interested in working for their community because that’s very much what the community council does.”
Lerwick North councillor John Fraser, a member of the Lerwick Community Council, agreed that there was a communication issue feeling that there might be a perception that joining your local community council would mean sacrificing a large amount time.
“We have to acknowledge that people have increasingly busy lives and that they are sometimes reluctant to take on more”, he said, before adding that serving on a community council “isn’t actually the most onerous task in the world.”
“If people understood that I think we would have more interest,” he said.
A further issue might be a feeling within communities that their local boards have “negligible influence”, Mr Fraser suggested.
He also believed publicity and communication were the keys to increasing interest but he also believed advertising community councils as a place for “young people to, for want of a better phrase, cut their teeth in politics”.
“We should be encouraging them to become part of the democratic process”, he added.
Not all communities are suffering from a lack of interest in low-level democracy. Yell Community Council was recently brought up to a full roster after the nominations of Lynsay Cunningham – who stood for the North Isles at May’s council elections but lost out to the trio of Duncan Simpson, Ryan Thomson and Alec Priest – and Lynn Thomson while an election was recently held for the Sandness and Walls Community Council.
Both of the Yell nominations and Mrs Garrick-Wright in Gulberwick, Quarff and Cunningsburgh will officially be declared elected community councillors on 23rd November. Any person interested in taking up a vacant post should contact the clerk to their local community council.