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More powers for our communities

Written by Tom Wills

March 29, 2021

I believe there are strong arguments for putting more powers into our communities and for me, that means empowering Shetland’s community councils as well as Shetland Islands Council (SIC).

As the attached graph shows, the UK and Scotland have abnormally large council areas compared with the rest of Europe: local government here is not local enough.

In Shetland we are relatively fortunate: we have one council representing 23,000 people, whereas the UK and Scottish averages are around 160,000. However, Shetland is made up of island communities that are more spread out and less well connected than most municipalities in Belgium, France or the Czech Republic. You would think that local government would be more local here, but it’s not: many EU municipalities have 10,000 inhabitants or less. [1]

Shetland is renowned for community spirit, whether it’s our brilliant volunteers, inspiring social enterprises like COPE or the success of local development companies in places like Sandwick, Northmavine, North Yell or Bressay. I know I risk offence by stopping that list there, but you get the idea: when people here feel they can make a difference, they get stuck in. Our council and community councils could do more to harness this energy, but they need the powers and budget to do so.

The 2014 independence referendum kicked off many debates about what sort of democracy we all want to live in and the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign by Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils led to the Scottish Parliament passing the Islands Act. This piece of legislation means the Scottish Government must consider any requests for more powers to be devolved to councils. The SIC is currently considering options for political and financial self-determination, but has yet to submit any specific requests for more powers.

The areas that I think we should consider first are transport, fishing and seabed revenues. The SIC could one day use the Islands Act to ask for control of Sumburgh Airport, the Aberdeen ferry contract or management of waters within the 12-mile limit, including the Crown Estate revenues from salmon farms. These things need to be considered carefully. For example, Shetland cannot afford to fund the external ferry contract, but who is better placed to influence the tendering process than the people who depend on the service? The mechanism for devolving powers to Shetland is there if we want to use it.

Community councils are the fundamental unit of local democracy in Scotland and in Shetland, they are better funded and more active than in many other places. However, community council budgets are relatively small, they are limited in what they can do – for example they can’t own assets – and only one position (Clerk) is paid.

I think we should explore whether community councils could own assets and how we can encourage younger folk to get involved. This really comes down to giving them more clout and more cash. That money will have to come from somewhere, but I think we should be putting put a higher value on this base layer of local democracy.

I support self-government for Scotland not as a matter of destiny, or any sense that Scotland is more special than anywhere else – but as a means to an end and a means of empowering communities across Scotland. We have been subjected to repeated Tory governments we didn’t vote for, we’ve been taken out of Europe against our will and now Westminster’s internal market bill is stripping powers from our parliament.

Scotland is being dragged in an increasingly right-wing direction and even the basic idea of Scotland having a devolved parliament now seems to be under threat, with Boris Johnson declaring devolution a “disaster”, despite all the gains it has delivered.

I’ll end with a quote from Shetland’s famous Lib Dem MP Jo Grimond, who represented us from 1950 to 1982:

“I do not like the word devolution as it has come to be called. It implies that power rests at Westminster, from which centre some may be graciously devolved. I would rather begin by assuming that power should rest with the people who entrust it to their representatives to discharge the essential tasks of government. Once we accept that the Scots and Welsh are nations, then we must accord them parliaments which have all the normal powers of government, except for those that they delegate to the United Kingdom government or the EEC.”

I see self-government for Scotland as a means of creating a modern democratic state: one that empowers local democracy in Shetland and across the country.

Ref 1 – http://www.oecd.org/regional/EU-Local-government-key-data.pdf

Ref 2: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2018/12/enacted#:~:text=An%20Act%20of%20the%20Scottish%20Parliament%20to%20make,in%20respect%20of%20marine%20development%20adjacent%20to%20islands.