Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Resilient communities make resilient champions – An interview with Heather Woodbridge

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Credit: Guy Hinks

Overview

Newly-appointed, Leader of Orkney Islands Council in Scotland, Heather Woodbridge, won the Resilience Champion award at LGIU’s 2023 Scotland Cllr Awards due to her remarkable contributions to the Orkney Islands Council, as well as the wider community and local government sector in Scotland.

Despite serving only a short amount of time on the council, she has made an incredible impact. Heather has been a strong advocate for the ferry-linked islands, promoting their voices and ensuring their health and care needs, as well as economic drivers, are considered at every level of the local authority and further afield.

She has worked tirelessly to bring together multiple community representatives, officers and external organisations to work collaboratively to achieve improved outcomes and identify solutions. Heather’s work in relation to the inequalities surrounding community responder services, housing and transport has been exemplary, and she has helped bring health and care provisions to some of the most remote communities. Her persistence in highlighting the importance of digital and physical connectivity alongside housing and economic impact for the islands is inspiring and deserving of recognition beyond the island shores.

Heather’s impressive track record, leadership and dedication to public service make her a deserving recipient of the award, and this interview shares more insights into why she was crowned our Resilience Champion of 2023.

Credit: Guy Hinks

An unusual entry into local government

Heather Woodbridge was first elected to serve as a councillor in 2020 as part of a by-election for North Isles Ward – not only did she step into the role as the youngest councillor in the history of the council, but she did so in place of her late father, Councillor Kevin Woodbridge. She shares that before her father died, he asked, with no pressure, if she would consider standing in his place. “I thought about it, and the answer was yes. I’m interested in local issues. I’m interested in what matters to local people. I’m interested in advocating for my area and I’m interested in finishing his term for him.” Heather proudly states that it was ‘the best decision she ever made.’ In 2020, she was re-elected, and Heather says, “It felt like getting re-elected in my own right and doing it for myself. It’s an unusual way to enter local government, but I regret nothing.”

Heather recounts how she was surprised to win the award, stating she felt humbled to even be nominated. “There are so many people in local government who are doing amazing things,” Heather exclaims, further adding, “Local government is such an exciting part of government and democracy, and I don’t think we talk about it enough.” For Orkney, Heather feels it’s very important to shout about what they are doing and not just for the acclaim. “If we’ve got a solution that works on a tiny budget and a really awkward geographical situation, perhaps there is something other folks can learn from – If it works in Orkney, it’s likely going to work somewhere else!”

Reflecting on if she could have pictured herself as a councillor five years ago – let alone the Leader of Orkney Council – Heather takes stock and admits that she probably wouldn’t have made the link, even though it now feels like an inevitable path. “My idea of politics was very much Westminister and Scottish parliament, the things you see in the press and on TV that are accessible to most people. I didn’t link up at the time that I was actually already involved in politics.”

Credit: Guy Hinks

Her record speaks for itself, from campaigning for healthcare provisions on the islands to sitting as a board director for housing and regeneration efforts. There are not many parts of the local community that Heather didn’t already have a foot in before she became such a staple part of the council. Even the data and analytical skills she gained growing up in a bird observatory and studying ecology, she credits as valuable assets for her role leading and advocating for Orkney. “It was all quite a natural flow that brought me here. If you incorporate all these seemingly unrelated things, they actually are seamlessly connected,” she reflects.

Heather deems that one of the biggest challenges of working in local government is the compensation. “The pay doesn’t reflect the role and the hours required. What we’re talking about here is the cost of democracy and ensuring you have representative, energetic people who can fulfil that democratic function,” she explains. These pay challenges can even extend across local government within the same country, failing to reflect the differing responsibilities and remits for an island archipelago local government compared to their city counterparts. She also raises how island representation swings more towards independent candidates, and that lack of support from a political party can be another example of discrepancy that doesn’t prioritise making sure the systems and democracy itself are set up to work in the best interest of the community.

However, when it comes to the most rewarding part of her role, Heather, without hesitation, shares that it’s “being able to make a difference to the lives of people in your area. It’s rewarding to be able to solve something for someone. Even doing it quietly so it will never be recognised, but you know it made a tremendous difference to someone’s life – that makes it all worth it.”

High stakes

The passion Heather holds for her homeland is clear from the jump, labelling Orkney as one of the most beautiful places in the world – and it’s hard to disagree. The area includes around 20 inhabited islands and 20 different community councils, all facing their own specific challenges. Heather grew up in North Ronaldsay (the most northern island in the Orkney archipelago), a place she still calls home while commuting to the council headquarters in Kirkwall during the weekdays. She shares that this is a journey which has thankfully been improved by the council’s partnership with Logan Air, to offer public inter-island flight services. “It’s an 8-seater plane, including the pilot! It’s really improved the connectivity, and now it’s just a 15-minute journey home,” Heather’s off-the-cuff comment offers an immediate window into just how unique life is in this beautiful part of the world.

Stromness village in the Orkney islands
Credit:Nicola Colombo on iStock

Heather recounts that it was, in fact, these constant logistical challenges that drove her to pursue a career in local government in the first place. “My motivation is part of what I experienced growing up and living on the Islands. We get one ferry a week which covers absolutely everything and can be really infrequent and unreliable.” Heather elaborates, “If the weather is bad, that’s it. We don’t get a boat for 2 weeks, sometimes 3 or 4. I remember one winter, we didn’t have a ferry for 8 weeks. It was really scary because people were running out of heating oil and feed for their animals, it was a dire situation.”

External unreliability and uncontrollable factors like the weather are what Heather credits for building resilience within her and her community, explaining that in these places, the stakes are simply a lot higher. “It’s a very different mindset. You really have to depend on yourself and your connections.” She notes that it was a ‘revolution’ when fresh food cargo flights were brought to the Islands, “People are always going to live on these islands, so it’s a case of making sure they have access to adequate resources,” and evidently, that’s what drives her life in local government.

Despite the undisputed challenges presented by living on the islands, Heather advocates that the wonderfully unique culture and community in Orkney could only be born from this particular landscape and its legacy. “We were the genuine heart of everything, from a strategic point of view during the wars to back when water was the highway.” Orkney’s community spirit is perhaps in its own league, with community councils winning awards due to the vast engagement initiatives they drive and the agency they have. “They even have assets, like wind turbines for generating money for local enterprises, they run cafes and have all these amazing projects!” explains Heather.

Rich cultural opportunities

Heather strongly praises her ‘enabling community’ for all the opportunities she has had. Sharing how she has always been encouraged to sit on local charities, get involved in the community association and even act as the Co-Director of the island’s annual sheep festival – a volunteer-led regeneration endeavour to restore the historic drystone sheep dyke and protect the native beach sheep.

One particular highlight was the chance to learn an instrument, all thanks to free lessons funded through the council and the school. She explains that due to the cultural significance of music across the islands, Orkney has been offering this scheme for 45 years before the Scottish government made it a national policy. “We have such a rich, active culture here. As a kid, I would join in with bands, and everyone played an instrument. You’d go to the pub when you’re old enough and just play music there as well.” This led to Heather going on an “incredible” musical exchange experience with the council’s twin Norweigan municipal. She affirms that Orkney Council are working on plans to further enhance and create more of these cultural opportunities for the next generation, something she believes passionately is important for preserving and valuing culture and heritage.

Lighthouse on coast of Brough of Birsay, Orkney, Scotland, in the parish of Birsay.
Photo by Maxwell Andrews on Unsplash

A completely different world

Reflecting on her experiences, Heather explains that “it’s really exciting to be in local government on an island because you’re operating a bit more like a small country.” But as she points out in the next breath, this responsibility is bestowed on them due to a deep necessity – if the council doesn’t provide these services, they don’t exist in these areas. “Our portfolio is huge. We have ports and airfields, we employ firefighters to run these services, and we only have local authority-run care homes, it’s just a completely different world here.” A world that people on the outside perhaps don’t seem to really understand.

Heather says part of addressing this is by spotlighting what is going on in Orkney and even bringing people to the islands to see what it’s really like when dealing with these critical challenges. She warns, “You can only squeeze rural communities so much unless your policy is you want to depopulate islands. My challenge then, and it may be a bit provocative, but can you imagine it here without any populated islands? That wouldn’t be Scotland. These islands are not just for the people who live here, it’s for everybody. Let’s not lose them!”

More from LGIU Scotland…

Islands in the downstream – governance in the Scottish islands

Making waves: Is the tide turning for coastal communities?

Scottish National Islands Plan – a vehicle for transformation?

State of independence: The growing significance of independent councillors in local government



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