Reform Scotland

The Class of 2022 – a perspective from an Independent Councillor – Sarah Atkin

This Reform Scotland series is an opportunity to reflect upon the 30 years since ‘Shaping the Future: The New Councils’ was published.  From a two-tier local authority system, Scotland ended up with 32 unitary local authorities. 

As a sitting Highland Councillor, elected for the first time in 2022, I am delighted to have been asked to contribute and to share my experience and thoughts. 

If you do not know or live in the Highlands, please take a moment to absorb these stats.  

The Highland Council area covers one third of Scotland’s land mass.  It is 20% larger than Wales and ten times the size of Luxembourg.  We have a coastline of 4,905km (inc. the islands);  A 6,700km road network;  2,180 bridges;  1.700km of footways; and 90 harbours.  And this is officially a ‘local’ authority, and financed as such. 

In addition, this largest local authority area in the UK serves the lowest population density (at 8 persons per square metre.)  It is not difficult to see why questions are being asked by some national politicians about whether Highland Council, as a local authority, is just too big.  Accusations that the council fails to serve people well, simply due to its size, are too simplistic though. 

In truth, the Highland Council area is a region.  Strategically, much lends itself to a regional perspective:  planning, transport, roads, economic development, training and skills are examples.  These functions are better run from within the Highlands, by those who understand the Highlands, rather than sucked into a centralised system.  Other key services do lend themselves to more localised areas for planning and delivery, be that for Caithness & Sutherland, Lochaber, Ross and Cromarty etc. Then there’s the Ward, community / neighbourhood level. 

Supra-regional collaboration is sensible, and this is already happening between Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City and Highland Council.  If we look over the border, Metro Mayors in England are responsible for city regions, not cities. The city region is the engine for driving forward a distinct economic identity.  Arguably, the Highland ‘model’ is ahead of the rest of Scotland with this. 

What makes sense, and at what level, is complex.  Geographic size is a red herring if local government is little more than the delivery arm of central government policy and directives.  In that scenario, is it even worth electing local councillors?  Budgetary freedom and flexibility, greater fiscal power, as well as freedom to innovate on policy, come ahead of size.  Voters expect elected councillors to make decisions and to be accountable for decisions around how money is spent. The undermining of that democratic principle at local government level is just as powerful a contributor to the public’s disconnect with politics as geographical distance.  

Local government in the Highlands has a long tradition of independent Councillors.  This has declined since the introduction of proportional representation in 2007.  2022 saw the lowest ever number of Independents returned.         

Standing as an Independent was an easy decision for me.  I am no longer a member of a political party.  Tribal politics turns me off.  I’d work with anybody to get things done, regardless of my wider political views.  

The upside and downside of standing as an Independent candidate is that it is about you.  Your personal qualities, perceived integrity and commitment to your community.  Without the party political label, you carry no baggage or preconceptions.  (In rural communities, the local profile of many candidates on a party political ticket will come first as well.  Many vote on a personal basis, despite party affiliation.)  What you don’t have as an Independent is that ‘baked-in’ loyal party vote; nor the party ‘machine’ with financial, administrative and emotional ‘cover’.  You are your own brand, so to speak.  It’s exposing, yes, but campaigning is fun.  Despite a digital presence, old fashioned “boots on the ground”, knocking doors and speaking directly to people still works best.  Technology did provide our democratic process with a huge boost, though, as the livestreamed Hustings had 1,400 views, 16% of the electorate. An impressive ‘reach’.  Given I was competing in a crowded field, it was thrilling – and humbling – to be elected. 

Many are deterred from standing for elected office.  This is now an issue right across politics; not just in local government.  Without doubt, there are barriers.  Some are practical; some perhaps spring from self-doubt and many are put off because modern politics can be so incredibly toxic.  I hope, in a small way, I proved that if you are prepared to put your best foot forward (literally), you can be elected with relatively little money; a bit of nous, a Facebook page, support from friends and a decent leaflet. The elections team at Highland Council were also invaluable, providing support and advice in navigating what initially felt like a minefield of processes.  

Turnout in our Ward was 53.7%, one of the highest in Scotland, albeit 46% of the electorate not motivated to vote is still depressing.  At 39% female representation, Highland Council has a long way to go before it reflects its majority female population.  However, I am proud to serve in one of Highland’s three all-female Wards (Scotland has 12 out of 355 Wards.)

Impressions of the job so far?  Overwhelming, exhausting, demanding, frustrating, rewarding – often in the space of a single day.  What’s not to like?  To be able to use your position to help people, to advocate for and support your community, exert influence and make things happen is quite something.  Being elected is incredibly privileged.  The Ward, though is one part of the job.  The wider remit of ‘being a Councillor’ is immense and varied.  To some extent, we can choose how demanding the role is and what we prioritise.  Rather than be a lone Independent, I chose to be part of the Independent Group and governing administration.  This brings with it membership of Strategic Committees.  Ward members who take on regulatory roles – planning, licensing – have an additional workload (and nobody warned us about the reading!) 

Committee places are allocated by political/group representation.  Places have to be filled, from a limited pool of members so some take on a huge amount.  Those members outside the membership threshold, despite knowledge, experience and skill, miss out and, in my view, we all lose out by their exclusion.  So, there can be a disparity with the formal workload of committees and regulatory responsibilities but the majority of councillors I know are full-on. 

What’s often misconstrued is the idea that being an Independent means you are not political.  Those who seek election, whether standing as an Independent or on a party political ticket, aspire to be politicians.  It’s churlish to pretend otherwise.  Politics is the art of getting things done.  On that basis, it should viewed as a necessary good – not an ‘evil’.

Political skill does matter in this job.  Whilst we do not run the day-to-day operations of the council, legally, we are the council and we work for the people.  So, politics is important. Whether a party political culture serves local government well, I’m not convinced. 

Voters expect change if they vote for it.  But, the expectations of ‘change’, as understood in national politics, struggles at the local level.  On paper, May 2022 was a ‘change’ election at Highland Council.  36 new councillors (out of 74.)  The SNP returned as the largest party.  Except that, fundamentally, with ‘change’, little does change.  The wheels keep on turning.  They have to.  The stark reality of the financial – and numerous other – challenges are laid bare and in need of solutions.  Against this backdrop, setting aside the leadership, is one political administration really going to be hugely different from another? 

Local government is focused entirely on the pragmatic – not the ideological or constitutional.  A culture when one side of the aisle is seeking to ‘trip up’ the other for no other reason than to score points, with both then behaving defensively to avoid being caught out, is a distraction.  Who does this culture serve?  Not the people who elected us. 

Party political groupings are a fact of life.  Party political point scoring doesn’t have to be.  The local is not the national.  Given the monumental challenges we face, seeking common ground and ways of working that involve maximum cross-party collaboration and the input of all the talent in the room, is the grown-up approach.  Place before party. 

It’s a statement of the obvious that nobody becomes a councillor for the money.  The role is one of ‘no set hours’, or, more accurately, ‘all hours’.  The salary, though is commensurate with this being a part-time role.  I am fortunate in that this is my only job.  I scratch my head to see how the job can be done on a part-time basis if we are to fulfil all that is expected of us, yet this is how it is for a significant minority.  According to a data investigation by The National newspaper, for 42% of Highland Councillors that’s the reality.  Is this sustainable?  How many do we lose across Scotland after one term from burnout?  

There’s a debate to be had around the role and remuneration of local councillors. This councillor is not using this platform to advocate for a pay rise.   I would say is this, however. A salary reflective of the role would go some way to opening up elected office to more people, especially women and younger candidates. It would also ease the pressure for those juggling two jobs out of necessity.  Also, council leaders earning less than MSPs is ludicrous. 

However, we would lose something by overly professionalising the role of a local councillor.  There is a diversity of lived and professional experience amongst our members.  The motivation for the majority in standing is to serve the communities in which they live.  The ‘day job’ experience brings a great deal to the table: doctor, entrepreneur, college lecturer, care worker, commissioned child minder are just a few jobs/professions that spring to mind.  How many would choose to be a councillor if it meant relinquishing an established career?  Not many.  We could end up dominated by the breed of politician most detested by the public – the careerist who has ‘never had a proper job’.  Be careful what you wish for. 

Sarah Atkin is an independent councillor for the Black Isle on Highland Council

If you would like to contribute to Reform Scotland’s Devolving Scotland forum, please email Alison.Payne@ReformScotland.com