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August 1, 2012

Something needs to be done

Last week saw more pain for the much troubled community council movement.  Without any national leadership since its umbrella body folded in March, some saw an opportunity to pause and reflect on future direction. The National Network of Community Councillors – an online forum for debate – was established with this purpose in mind.  It too has just taken the decision to fold, sensing no enthusiasm or appetite for real change – particularly from Scottish Government.   Someone, somewhere needs to get a grip of this.


Posted on,  25 July 2012

Blog by Jenny MacKenzie , 

WE are taking our last dance on this page, and just as anyone would savour the last drink at the O.K. Corrall, the writer will make the most of the last post for the National Network of Community Councillors. 

It has come to my attention, from more than one reliable source, that the whole Community Council (CC) concept has been well and truly parked in a cul de sac of failed community engagement. The dust covers are out and the wheel lock is on.  

Regarded as unrepresentative and narrow in interest, membership and ambition, CCs are privately perceived as too often hijacked by local politicians (who ought to know better) ambitious interest groups, or older, retired middle-class men who seek former, or yet-to-be-realised glory days.  (The latter are cantankerous, wilful and ‘white and spiteful’ as one jovial observer remarked who happens to be married to one, always pleased indeed to have him out of the house for the monthly meetings). 

While sometimes made up of all of the above, representatives of their communities most of them are not – and yet, it was claimed ¬¬– that is what community councils are meant to be.    

Of course there are exceptions and one or two do work quite well.  They carry blithely on, making it clear incidentally that the very last thing they need is a national network.  Some do act as a link, for perhaps a community activist who wants to know who needs help, or for the occasional truly inspirational younger person who makes use of her CC as a gateway for community projects.  We have profiled one here (scroll to the bottom)  and commend her worthy goals.  

Several island, rural community and small village CCs function well too.  They focus on local area needs, building and maintaining community halls for example, or forming trusts to establish wind turbines that yield a healthy profit.  We have profiled one or two of those. On the whole however, they too show little need or enthusiasm for national body representation.  

But many urban areas struggle with problems that spring from the anonymity of larger groups and could do all with all the help they can get.  Sadly for them however, despite public debate about the flaws in the CC construct, it has become clear that absolutely nothing will change for them anytime soon.  

First of the problems is the artfully constructed membership list that ensures an election isn’t necessary.  Before the very first meeting, the resulting self-appointed groups begin with a predilection to please themselves. 

But the greatest obstacle of all is that there is not one check and balance to provide post holders and committees with the powers to deal effectively with nuisance trouble makers. What a ridiculous situation to be in!

Claiming to be ‘elected’ by the public, a disruptive CCllr cannot in law be sacked, removed from office, banned, or excluded.  The only effective way of getting rid is to dissolve the CC and try to start over.  This is not recommended. 

If attempts are made to form a new group and exclude the offender, European court action is threatened on the grounds of abused human rights.  Though this has happened in relatively few CCs across Scotland, the results have been mass resignations or dissolution.  

Then there are budgetary issues.  In most cases, very small grants are provided for ‘communication’ matters and administration.  What many CC urban activists had hoped for in the longer term would have been reasonable budgets, as granted in some island communities that could be directed into local projects.  One or two elitist urban pilots have attempted this, and have been quoted as proof of Scottish Government good intent, but given the current distaste for the CC concept, my bet is they are unlikely to be repeated.     

                                                A hole at the heart

DESPITE all of these problems, there was a reason to build on the better aspects of the vision, to push for more publicity, better representation, more penalties for misuse and better budgets.  The national network was set up on that premise.  But that was before it was understood that the whole concept has been quietly shelved, with no will or intent to work for meaningful structural change. Fulsome praise will continue for side-line CC successes, but there is no commitment whatsoever to removing the obstacles that hamstring most of them in the stalls.  

Today the public is better informed and more decisive than it used to be.  While activists who seek to empower local communities do not look for financial reward, value for time is an absolute must. They look for ground rule honesty. Very few will settle for obfuscation and deferred discussion.  

The community council concept was flawed from the start.  We thank the contributor who asked if the model is fit for purpose and concluded that it is not.  We applaud the former local authority employee who revealed that many council officials have never taken CC members seriously and continue to display zilch intention of doing so.  

And we conclude by shining shame on the Scottish Government for setting up a system promoting local democracy that carried a death warrant within its heart right from the start.  

The site for the national network of community councils has contributed in some part to the debate about how community engagement and empowerment could work, so it will stay alive for a time as a record of that.  In the meantime however, perhaps the next meaningful conversation about how real and effective democracy can grow locally will come from you?  

Jenny MacKenzie