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January 24, 2023

Falkirk’s faltering democracy

If community councils are the most local expression of local democracy, then Falkirk should be worried. From a meeting I attended earlier this month, it was clear that the vast majority of community councils in Falkirk had had enough of being routinely ignored and excluded from decision making in the town. Resignations and a reluctance to stand for re-election has left the town with less than a quarter of its community councils still standing. Falkirk Council leader, Cllr Meiklejohn, thinks further work may be needed to understand why this has happened. Is she kidding? 

Planning Democracy

As reported by the Falkirk Herald, Falkirk’s Community Councils are struggling to reform after the recent elections, leaving less than a quarter of the town’s most local tier of governance still in existence. Even long term Community Council stalwarts who have been keeping many going have had enough. 

Early in the new year Planning Democracy held a meeting to investigate the cause of this mass departure from Local Democracy, with several former and current Community Councillors from the Falkirk area citing a litany of longstanding complaints about their treatment by Falkirk Council as the main justification for stepping away from their civic duties. 

Many highlighted the planning system which they feel is so one sided in favour of developers, that they saw themselves as being no more than bystanders. Of chief concern was the amount of poor quality housing being built, usually in the wrong place, with no thought for the local infrastructure & services, with prices that the majority in their community could not afford.

“We understand that we need new housing and that our villages will inevitably grow, but our local infrastructure and services are at breaking point and none of the housing is the kind we need, at a price most people can afford. 

Large Developments inevitably generate multi millions in profit for the developer but the local community is paid lip service to in the form of improving local and wider services. 

The Gilston Development in Polmont has been granted Planning in Principle for around 500 units, with the Developer contributing to improving local services, however we feel financially & practically that this is inadequate to support a development of this size.

In Larbert a new school was constructed due to the volume of new housing being built, however it has reached capacity very quickly and now even more development is happening, which is putting a real strain on already creaking services” 

said Michael Stuart of Polmont CC, who is one of the few Community Councils left in Falkirk. 

Added to these complaints was the lack of a Community Right of Appeal. Whereas developers have the right to challenge a planning refusal at no cost to them, communities who are affected by developments that are approved, have no such right of appeal. This is seen by many as a gross injustice, but efforts to bring in rights of appeal, which were supported by Falkirk Community Councils at the time, were thwarted during the last round of Planning Reforms in 2019. 

“We had so many Community Councils support a right of appeal and yet the Government did not listen to our calls for equality. Without this we have no affordable recourse to justice, even if planning applications go against the Local Development Plan or impact negatively on our environment or community. 

Following the approval of the controversial Persimmon Hillcrest/Tappernail development, I decided to step down. Even if adequate funding were provided, I have no desire to put effort into doing a Local Place Plan, because like everything else, it will be overridden in favour of developers and big business.” said Maria Montinaro formerly of Shieldhill and California Community Council

I’m still here because no one else comes forward to be in the Community Council.  It’s not surprising, because we’re ignored, over-ridden and because of this we have low morale. It makes us look ineffective and we lose any credibility we might have had by not having any influence” Walter Inglis Grangemouth CC

Whereas previously, several Community Councils had come together to campaign jointly against the threat of fracking, this kind of effective networking was very resource consuming and not sustainable in the long term without appropriate funding. 

The lack of resources was also raised in connection with the expectation that communities will invest time and energy in the production of Local Place Plans. Whilst Scottish Government wants to introduce LPPs, there has been no indication that there will be any resources available to support this time consuming work.

Despite all the current negativity and pessimism about the role of community councils, there are some who continue to argue that in the absence of any alternative mechanism for representing  and acting on a community’s behalf, it would be irresponsible to walk away from the only viable option. 

Much of what is happening in Falkirk echoes what Planning Democracy found in a recent survey of 228 Community Councillors throughout Scotland which found that at the root of many of their challenges is a lack of meaningful opportunities to participate in the planning system and a lack of influence over what happens.

Many Community Councils feel they aren’t being listened to by Local Authority planning departments. Many said that the planning system could be better designed to allow for community participation and that there was a need for training and better advice on planning issues. 

Planning Democracy have also recently released a short film which highlights many of the concerns voiced recorded above.

“We have a fundamental crisis in local democracy, with communities feeling disempowered, particularly where planning issues are concerned” said Clare Symonds of Planning Democracy. “The Scottish Government has a manifesto commitment to forward a Local Democracy Bill which is an opportunity to resolve these issues, before we completely lose the most local form of community representation we have in Scotland”. 

Editors notes

The survey of community councillors can be found here. Community Council Survey on Planning Issues ( 

The Scottish Government commenced a Local Governance Review back in 2017, also known as Democracy Matters, which among other things explored  how power and resources could be better shared with communities. There was extensive consultation involving 4000 people, however progress was slowed during Covid and now the process seemingly has stalled.