Q&A with James Stockan, independent leader of Orkney Islands Council

Written by Staff reporter on 18 October 2017 in Inside Politics

Holyrood asks the new Orkney Islands Council leader about his experience of the role so far

Councillor James Stockan, leader of Orkney Islands Council - Image credit: Orkney Islands Council

Why did you choose to become a council leader?

James Stockan: As a matter of fact, I had been a councillor since 2003 and during the process of coming to the last election, on the days before and on the day of the election, so many of the people who had been returned, such a high percentage of the folk returned to the council, and some of the new people, all came and asked me if I would consider leading the council, which really put me in the position where I felt that I should step up to the mark and do that, with their encouragement.


Has being leader of the council been like what you expected so far?

JS: Well, yes, because I’ve held quite a number of senior roles up ‘til now and I would say that it is exactly what I expected, but it has been intensely busy, with so many things happening all at the one time.


How are you learning from your predecessor?

JS: I have served under two previous leaders and would hope I have learned from them both. Merging new and old ideas and styles.


What are you aiming to do differently from the previous administration?

JS: Well, what we’ve done, because of the expectation of quite severe cuts, we have tried to form a council plan really early and actually face the cuts at the beginning of the council rather than incrementally. And so that’s one of our main focuses, along with all the stuff that’s happening for the islands bill and the islands deal and the Crown Estate and so many other things happening at the same time for us.


What key changes have you set your sights on achieving?

JS: This is the time that I would hope that we can actually fundamentally change the things we do. My view is there’s a lot of things the council does at present that are maybe not statutory duties that we need to take out of our scope and lower them down to engage communities to do, so communities within our authority actually engaging them and giving them budgets to deliver it in a different way. And then also look at the opportunity as single public authorities we would want to actually join up the organisations that have a, the public organisations in the area to look to see where we can make savings in back office works and look for a new modus operandi of delivery and therefore make the best use of the public pound to deliver the most efficient and most effective services to our community.


What are the biggest challenges you are expecting in your area over the next few years?

JS: Well I have mentioned budget, and the second thing is budget and the third thing is budget. Budget gives opportunity, but the opportunity means that we will not, at the end of this five years, things will not be delivered in the same way as they are now. 


As a council of independents, each with your own personal agendas, how to you come to agreement about policy?

JS: Well, we meet as a collective group and we have done the biggest consultation that anybody could ever have done in a community with a door-to-door knocking, and because you’re knocking on doors not with a manifesto but really with a listening ear we are really taking community needs and desires and aspirations right from the base level into the process. So what we do then is we come together, we list all the things that members want to aspire to or change or whatever, then we go through a system of sifting that and try to prioritise and try to find principles and priorities and projects that we would hope to meet some of these things and we are looking to have an outcome-focused council plan which we hope to put in place within the first nine months of this council.


There is still a significant gender imbalance in councils. How would you encourage more women to become councillors?

JS: I think the way for that to happen is for people to see how effective women are, but I do not believe in positive discrimination because that leaves discrimination in the equation. I just really like to show how well individuals can perform and therefore for people to understand that it is completely open access for anyone to stand and the public to choose the best person they think to serve their community.


If you were completely free to reform local government in Scotland, what would you change?

JS: I think what I would love to see is for local government to have much more permissive powers to be able to work more on a European model for them to actually be able to look at the levers and have them in their hands to operate change so that the community can grow and flourish and deliver things not prescribed to a national agenda but for the very best effect and benefit for the people.


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