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August 3, 2010

Community Councils – where does the future lie?

Scotland’s 1200 Community Councils were established in 1975 partly to bridge the gap between local communities and the newly created monolithic structures of local govt that were the result of reorganisation.   As the old town councils had just been abolished, the appearance of this new community tier of local democracy seemed sensible. But many believe that community councils have been let down by the very system that set them up and have never had a chance to prove their worth

Two recent articles offering different perspectives on the future of community councils

Hugh Docherty – The Herald

One of the first jobs I did on joining Strathclyde Regional Council’s public relations department in 1985 was to help breathe new life into the region’s ailing community councils.

That was 10 years after they had been established as part of local government reorganisation in 1975, and a visit to the community council resource centre in Glasgow, plus some press releases to the 52 local papers covering Strathclyde, wasn’t encouraging.

It soon became clear that no-one was very interested in involvement, while the cornerstones of tenants and residents’ associations and neighbourhood watch committees were the same people as those on community councils.

Most were retired, some obsessed with a particular single local issue, and others were members of that peculiar class of people, many seemingly suffering from an adult version of attention deficit disorder, bestowed with the over-dignified title of ‘community activist’. No wonder ordinary residents shied away.

Today, the picture is similar in the majority of Scotland’s 1,200 community councils. Now that axes are being sharpened for the cuts to come, community councils should be first in line for the chop. For they squander enormous amounts of expensive and precious council officer time pandering to the whims and moans of members, who generally don’t represent anything but the particular obsessions of those who are generally co-opted to them. The majority of community councils never have enough candidates for membership to run an election. Getting on is easy, staying on is easier and it becomes a closed shop.

Of course, there are some community councils doing an excellent job, but they only seem to work where the first line in their title actually exists – a community itself. I’ve come across examples in Neilston, where the community council has worked with the local council and other agencies to start an effective regeneration of the village, while Portpatrick’s community council publishes an excellent newsletter and effects physical and attitudinal change in the community. In both cases, vitally, there’s a community to start with.

But the majority of community councils in urban and suburban areas labour under the disadvantage that no real community exists. They tend to be dominated by older people who often make little effort to communicate with residents and whose personal interests tend to dominate proceedings. Local news agendas also tend to be distorted by them, for young reporters head to the community council meeting for guaranteed stories criticising the local council for the neighbourhood’s every ill.

Community councils are legally constituted bodies, have a right to be consulted on planning issues, and have a duty to work with the local council for the good of the community. But, far too often, members vent their rage on councillors who attend and their first response is often ‘No!’ to any proposal. In-fighting can also be destructively brutal.

The problem is that councillors can be over-influenced by community councils, whereas the average citizen isn’t interested in spending an evening in a school hall discussing issues such as littering, the latest application for a take-away, or that ‘the area’s not what it was when I moved here 40 years ago’ – a common community council discussion topic. Most people are far too busy getting on with their lives.

None of this is to denigrate the work of genuine people who run effective community councils, nor the efforts of the Association of Scottish Community Councils which has worked with COSLA to bring out a model code of practice.

We have to ask if we can afford community councils. They were launched 25 years ago as the cornerstone of what was then a more active local democracy with more participation by voters in elections and when more people belonged to churches, clubs and other organisations.

None of that applies today. It’s time to say goodbye to community councils as a touching anachronism.

Lesley Riddoch, The Scotsman

Mini-councils will energise Scotland’s communities

The Tory MEP Daniel Hannan recently made the case for localism in this paper: “Give councils more power and you will attract a higher calibre of candidate, as well as boosting participation at local elections.

“In Britain, local authorities raise 25 per cent of their budgets and turn-out is typically around 30 per cent. In France, those figures are, respectively, 50 and 55 per cent; in Switzerland 85 and 90 per cent.”

Interesting comparisons – and not just because Gallic councils raise more cash and enjoy higher voter turn-out. They also have tiny units of local governance compared with big, remote, clunky old Britain.

France has 22 regions, 96 départements and 36,000 communes with an average population of just 380. The Swiss have 7.6 million people in 23 cantons and 2,900 communes with an average population of 2,600.

Norway – same population as Scotland – has 431 municipalities responsible for primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen and social services, unemployment, planning, economic development and roads.

The average Norwegian municipality has 12,500 people – the average Scottish council serves 162,500.

North or south, Baltic or Mediterranean, most European states are micro-sized at their local tier. That means more councillors and more cost. It also means more connection, traction, trust, effective service delivery and involvement than our disempowering and distant “local” government.

Since the majority of MPs start as councillors, their early experience of community really matters. In municipal, small-scale, active and co-operative Norway, an expectation of local competence and involvement has informed national policy-making. The opposite has happened at Holyrood.

Politicians of all parties like the idea of involving local people, but in practice wouldn’t trust them to run the proverbial in a brewery.

So we are stuck with the biggest “local” government in Europe – too large to connect with actual communities, too small to achieve genuine efficiencies of scale. Kind of the mummy bowl size in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Betwixt and between.

Take Highland Council, which covers an area the size of Belgium with a population the size of Belfast. Councillors drive hundreds of thousands of miles a year to create a sense of connection through meetings, surgeries and local events. Despite such superhuman efforts, many remote communities feel largely negative, reduced to questioning, suspecting and vetoing whatever emanates from Inverness.

Meanwhile, Europe’s fastest growing city also lacks a dedicated council of its own. One size doesn’t fit all – in fact, it doesn’t fit very much.

Those who run Scotland’s overlarge authorities are on big salaries and a losing wicket. Many struggle valiantly to keep their ears to the ground. But the ground is simply too large. Ironically, this means more money spent on consultation, which then decreases confidence in community capacity because few locals bother to respond.

A recent Rotary event in Fort William was packed with retired planners, civil engineers, project managers and council chiefs despairing about the lack of vibrancy in their town. What had this talented, practical bunch done about it? Nothing.

Our disempowering, paternalist system of local government has stifled localism for decades – why should anything change now?

Local confidence, capacity and management skills come from running real assets and sweating over real decisions with real neighbours able to really help or really obstruct. Not from box-ticking consultation exercises.

So as life in Scotland looks set to become even more centralised in the name of efficiency, could it also become more localised at the same time? Should our current local authorities become the tier to scrap or – given Scotland’s penchant for failing to grasp the thistle – circumvent?

Prominent Scots have already been thinking the unthinkable.

Former Inspector of Constabulary Paddy Tomkins has called for a single police force in Scotland which communicates directly with beefed-up beat patrols. Labour’s education minister Peter Peacock has proposed scrapping Scotland’s 32 education authorities, allowing ministers in Edinburgh to fund headteachers directly.

Local police and municipal schools – why stop there? Why not ultra-local mini-councils à la Europe? Why not – because there’s no cash, no spare energy, no appetite for local government reform and no real belief that the massive distance between people and power in Britain actually matters. Happily, there may be an ad hoc solution.

Powerless community councils are so toothless they can’t legally own an asset. So development trusts have been set up to handle community orchards, lochs, pubs, libraries, bridges and wind turbines – and in the process a very practical, capable and focused set of people have been gathered together and let rip.

Community-owned or joint-venture wind farms will soon be netting millions (not peanuts) for their areas. Already in Fintry near Glasgow, community wind cash has paid to insulate homes and replace axed bus services.

It’s a silent revolution. There are 4-500 development trusts in Scotland – community-led, multiple-activity, enterprising, partnership-oriented and keen to move away from reliance on grants. Working with local housing associations, they could become a powerful force for local good.

Could they help to run Scotland? They soon will be.

Cost-cutting councils are already closing libraries and village halls. Development Trusts are ready to take them on – pigs in pokes excepted.

Joint procurement, shared backroom functions, local energy companies and district heating must become the norm in Scottish life, not the praiseworthy exception.

That can only happen if little and large combine powerfully to improve governance. Cometh the hour, cometh the community