Councillor pay ‘insufficient’ in cost of living crisis, ex-leader says

Former Shetland Islands boss suggests having fewer representatives but giving them more money.

Councillor pay ‘not sufficient’ in cost of living crisis, former Shetland Islands Council leader says iStock

A former local authority leader has suggested having less councillors – but paying them more – could end up being better for democracy.

Steven Coutts led the Shetland Islands Council from 2018 to earlier this year, when he stepped down at the May elections to take up a new job as the chief executive of social enterprise COPE.

A by-election has already successfully been held in the North Isles after only two candidates came forward for the three posts.

There was also no contest in the Shetland North ward, where just three candidates went for three seats.

Meanwhile another by-election is taking place in Coutts’ former ward, Shetland West, in November after John Leask resigned after only three months in the job due to other work commitments.

More diversity in the council chamber – not only by gender, but age too – has been desired locally by many in recent years.

The pay, which is nationally set, has been viewed by some as a barrier, particularly when working hours can be unpredictable.

The basic pay for a councillor in Scotland currently is £19,571, and locally this rises slightly for committee chairs.

For the leader in Shetland the salary sits at £32,622 and for the convener the pay is £24,467.

But Coutts feels that cutting councillor numbers – currently 23 in Shetland – and spreading the freed up salary around elected members could encourage greater participation in elections.

This is especially pertinent in the cost of living crisis, he added.

“I think the pay and renumeration is not of a scale that really attracts people,” Coutts said, “and I probably do believe we could have fewer councillors in Shetland and pay them more, and we would be better off as a result.”

He said he either had a supportive employer or had been self-employed throughout his time as a councillor, “which has been absolutely crucial to enable me to get to the meetings”.

But Coutts added: “The reality of trying to bring up a family in Shetland with the cost of living that we’ve got, never mind the cost of living crisis we’re dealing with now – the pay for a councillor is just not sufficient to cover the costs.

“That means you’re reducing your pool of potential candidates, which is not good for democracy.”