Around 30 people attended a hustings debate on Saturday, where those standing in the Lerwick South by-election faced questions on issues including poverty, climate change and transport.
Five candidates – Gary Robinson, Caroline Henderson, Arwed Wenger, Frances Valente and Stephen Flaws – have put themselves forward for the seat.
The first question came from Lerwick Community Council member Averil Simpson, who raised the issue of food banks – and specifically what needed to be done to ensure people did not require to use them.
Mr Flaws said fuel poverty and “in-work poverty” was prevalent throughout the isles.
“The government have to recognise that in Shetland we have additional costs and that has to be reflected,” he said.
The government have to recognise that in Shetland we have additional costs and that has to be reflected
“We have to start small to tackle the bigger problem. I do think the government has to recognise the costs up here.”
Ms Henderson described food bank usage as “shocking in this day and age”, and highlighted the Trussel Trust – the organisation behind the food bank – which had data on who is accessing the service.
“Once you’ve got clearer information on the problem you can look at ways of dealing with it.”
She described as “a sin” that perfectly good food was being thrown out by supermarkets just because it was at or near its sell-by date.
Mr Robinson said the government’s roll-out of the universal credit was at the “root cause” of the problem.
“It’s been an absolute shambles. How they expected folk could go for weeks without any money at all, just with the the promise it would be sorted out, I think is disgraceful.”
He said the much-maligned “bedroom tax” had also been a contributing factor, and added it was important for people both in public and private sectors to have a fair living wage.
Ms Valente said she had been shocked by the numbers of people who needed to use the food bank but were too ashamed of their poverty.
“The cost of housing is one of the things I find quite shocking,” she said, adding that people needed to “earn a huge amount of money” to put a roof over their heads.
She was also “appalled” by universal credit, and added it was wrong for society to “really target” or make people feel bad about being poor.
Mr Wenger said people were encouraged to go to Citizens Advice Bureau, which could advise people on how to manage their finances.
But Debra Nicolson, who stood as the Green candidate in the recent Holyrood campaign, pressed for more information on what candidates would do if elected.
Other questions were asked about the stigma attached to free school meals, and how it can be tackled.
Ms Valente said responsibility lay with the government, but stressed the council needed to ensure social work staff and support services were fully prepared to help.
Mr Robinson pointed to the 600-plus housing waiting list, and stressed affordable housing was key to solving the problem.
Ms Henderson added there was an “antiquated rule” in the council that a percentage of the housing stock had to be kept free in case there was an emergency, and added she had argued that should be scrapped because “people need houses now”.
Mr Flaws added there would always be a stigma until people are prepared to talk more openly about it.
Mr Wenger said beating stigma, and preventing discrimination, needed to start at an early age. He added SSE had raised energy prices three times in one year, and stressed the issue should be picked up in the council.
A former councillor, Iris Hawkins, wondered how well the candidates would adjust to “life in the goldfish bowl.”
Mr Wenger said many people knew him already as a postman and as a tourist guide. He said he was a member of Transition Shetland.
As a German, he said people had noticed his lack of Shetland dialect, although he admitted having problems with English accents, too.
“The most problems I have with the English is if I look down to the ‘sooth-moothers’ at 10 Downing Street”.
Ms Valente said being a councillor meant “you can’t win”, because pleasing one person would mean upsetting another.
“You just have to do the best job that you can so you can sleep at night with a clean conscience.”
You just have to do the best job that you can so you can sleep well at night with a clean conscience
– FRANCIS VALENTE
Mr Robinson has “been there before”. He said the hardest thing was the impact being a councillor can have on elected members’ families.
“You do have to really know what you’re in for.”
Mr Flaws said he had read the hardest part was putting yourself forward in the first place.
“To actually make the decision and say ‘this is the time. It suits me now’. Once that’s done you just have to get on with it.”
As for Ms Henderson, she stressed she would be “very happy” to be accountable from the start.
“There will be no curtains in my goldfish bowl,” she said.
The site of a new Gilbert Bain Hospital was then brought up by chairman Jim Anderson, with Mr Robinson – who chairs NHS Shetland – left feeling distinctly on the spot.
“I think wherever the site is it needs to be somewhere that is close to, if not within, Lerwick. That’s going to be one of the real challenges.”
Mr Wenger had his eye across the Bressay Sound.
“Build the fixed link to Bressay, and build the Gilbert Bain Hospital on Bressay,” he told Mr Anderson.
Mr Flaws admitted there were few options on where the hospital could be built.
“You have to be looking on the outskirts of Lerwick – the south road or the north road.”
Ms Valente said there was no easy solution.
“I suspect any decision to build the hospital is going to be 10 years down the road.”
Ms Henderson said any consideration needed to be “future-proofed”. But she said she was prepared to look outside of the town for the solution.
“If you’ve got really good shuttle links that would ease some of the congestion. If you have it nearer Tingwall it’s more central for the rest of the islands.”
If you have it nearer Tingwall it’s more central for the rest of the islands
– CAROLINE HENDERSON
Green issues were raised by Debra Nicolson, who said the SIC’s economic strategy was supportive of Sullom Voe and the gas plant until at least 2050. Where did the candidates stand on this in light of the climate emergency?
Mr Flaws said he believed that was why the council had not yet declared a climate emergency.
“The council is going to have to update its carbon management plan and see how it is going to bring this forward.
“The council needs to be more transparent on what their long-term thinking is.”
Part of the discussion focused on the Viking Energy windfarm.
Ms Henderson said it was difficult to address Sullom Voe “until they’ve said what they want to do”.
She added she was “not a fan” of the inter-connector, and the Viking windfarm was “not a green scheme – it’s only green in the context of money”.
Meanwhile, Mr Robinson said the council should declare a climate emergency “and not worry about the oil companies”.
He said BP had a “huge solar arm” in its organisation, while Total also promoted its environmental credentials and the Danish Dong Energy had gone completely out of the oil and gas sector.
“Without declaring the emergency I don’t think there’s any real impetus to do anything.”
Without declaring the emergency I don’t think there’s any real impetus to do anything
– GARY ROBINSON
Mr Wenger said Sullom Voe helped provide the UK with oil and gas.
But he said attitudes were changing, particularly with a growth in electric car usage.
“Electricity you can produce without burning fossil fuels is the best.”
Ms Valente said it was impossible to get rid of fossil fuels “over night”, but stressed thinking had to start now.
“Maybe Shetland can do without Sullom Voe but the economy of Britain still depends on that. We need to bring it down and work on other solutions.
“But I think the council does need to declare a climate emergency.”
Questions were also raised on ferry links to the mainland, with concerns voiced about the number of cabins and the freight constraints.
Ms Valente said the boats were “not fit for purpose,” and added capacity for freight was “dreadful”.
Mr Robinson said Shetland should be able to design a ferry to suit its own needs. He said the real problems with NorthLink vessels lay at constraints at Aberdeen Harbour, as well as regulations which limited where on a vessel cabins could be placed.
“To my mind we really should have the power locally to resolve our own ferry service, so we can design something that works for us.”
Mr Flaws said the ferries were commissioned roughly 20 years ago. He said it was difficult for his family of five to get away on the ferry.
“They’re just not fit for purpose. We need to say what we need rather than be told what we should be using.”
Discussion also focused on the bus service, with support for cheaper – or even, if possible, free – buses being offered.
Mr Flaws said it would be good to see more people using buses.
“If it was cheaper or free then maybe more folk would be using it. If that was an incentive to get more folk on it, then that should be looked at,” although he acknowledged some bus times did not suit everybody.
Ms Valente cited an occasion when she lived in Sandveien when the bus could get her to work just before 9am.
“They they changed the service, so that actually you either had to get to work by half eight or half nine. It’s just ridiculous. I do not know how that happened.”
Mr Wenger said e-buses – smaller units which can be called upon using an app – should be adopted. He added he had enjoyed a positive experience with an electric bike.
Mr Robinson – a convert to the bike himself – said there was no easy answer on buses.
“The last thing you want to do is run a bus with three folk on it when in actual fact that’s causing a bigger carbon footprint than a car with three folk in it.”
He berated the absence of any buses in Shetland that ran on anything other than diesel. He cited Dundee, which had a number of electric taxis.
Questions were raised about how a councillor might get things discussed with other members.
Mr Robinson said climate change was something he would consider attempting to raise a notice of motion over – a measure which would ensure the topic is debated in the chamber.
“That is one thing the council has failed to move on so far. I suspect if you were to canvas the councillors and ask them to sign it, you’d probably get half the councillors for a start. I fail to understand why they’ve not moved on it. It’s ridiculous.”
Mr Flaws said an issue that kept coming back was that people had no idea what the council’s strategy was with sustainable energy.
“It’s Viking Energy, or it’s nothing,” he said.
Ms Valente said she wanted to ensure everyone’s house was insulated.
“There are people living in houses that are cold. There are people who can not afford to do it and are choosing between putting the heating on and having something to eat.”
Mr Wenger said council office buildings should be insulated, but Ms Henderson said it was important to deal with the issues constituents bring forward.
All members were unanimously in favour of live-streaming of council meetings to help improve accountability and accessibility.