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May 1, 2019

Community Councils still going strong

Do community councils have a future?  And if so, how should they be strengthened? These questions lie at the heart of a major new piece of research published last week. In some ways – given how long they have been under-powered and under-resourced – it’s a minor miracle that so many continue to function at all. Yet this research indicates that 67% of community councils are hungry for more powers and responsibilities. And 72% believe that community councils should have a formal seat on local councils. Interesting to know what the local councils think about that.

Andrew Paterson, SCDC

In this blog, SCDC’s Andrew Paterson reflects on the Strengthening Community Councils event held on the 23rd April 2019 and wonders if it’s time to rebalance how we think of, and support, community councils.

“It’s good to see a balanced view of community councils for a change”

I paraphrase, but this was the clear message from more than one person attending the Strengthening Community Councils event on 23rd April at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

The event was held to discuss and take forward the recommendations of the Strengthening Community Councils report by Scottish Community Development Centre and What Works Scotland. This self-funded research heard the views of hundreds of community councillors across Scotland on what is needed for community councils to have a key role taking forward ideas around community empowerment and democratic renewal in Scotland.

You can read more about the research and its recommendations here. You can also get some good introductions on what is meant by community empowerment and democratic renewal here.

But a point worth emphasising – and one the report makes – is that community councils are too often criticised without any attempt to offer ideas for reforming them. Another spin on this is that they are judged in terms of how democratic and diverse they are with little recognition of how strengthening their role and profile would increase people’s interest and participation in them.

It is no surprise, therefore, that many who are involved with community councils feel there is an imbalance between what they are expected to be and what support and powers they are given in order to live up to these expectations. Our research highlights that giving community councils more influence, at the same time as supporting them to be more democratic, connected and diverse, is a way forward to strengthen local democracy in Scotland – and therefore something that the Local Governance Review should consider.

However, we’re also keen to stress that the research is just part of an ongoing conversation and we’d like to hear any further views moving forward. The event itself was a great chance to generate some more concrete ideas, such as the following:

There was a big focus on representation in community planning and other decision-making structures. People at the event picked up on the research finding that 90% of respondents thought CCs should have an automatic place on community planning partnerships. One suggestion was to have formalised agreements or concordats between structures and community councils on how they work together. (This message is reinforced by another new piece of research by community councils in South Lanarkshire, which makes a case for strengthened engagement with community councils)

The need was identified for people with particular skills to support community councils. Simple support such as admin or clerk services would help, but more fundamental change could result from community development support to engage with their communities and take forward priorities. Such a person would be  skilled in dialogue and deliberation techniques as well as finding funding and navigating policy.

It is vital that community councils are valued. Participants saw the research report (and case studies contained in it) as a tool to explain to agencies and communities what community councils do, as well as what they can be if supported properly. Publicity was seen as key, not only of great examples of the work of community councils but of the positive impact on individuals who join community councils.

A really good illustration of this last point came from one participant who explained that she had joined her local community council in order to find out how to get more flowers planted in her neighbourhood. Since then, her involvement had increased her health and wellbeing and led to greater confidence to speak publicly, including at our own event.

So maybe it’s time to redress the balance and seriously get behind community councils in order to strengthen democratic participation for the benefit of everyone.