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Community council umbrella with people

Why Community Councils are Awesome…

Simon Jones

Why community councils are awesome and you should definitely join yours!

One of the few points of disagreement I have with Common Weal’s ideas is on community representation. Common Weal’s position is stated here https://commonweal.scot/policies/development-councils-a-proposal-for-a-new-system-of-local-democracy-in-scotland/. It’s hard to argue with most of their points – my point of disagreement is with their conclusion.

First, let’s talk about bringing in a new tier of government as a legislative project. Government is split into departments each of which will get to introduce a very small number of Bills during a parliamentary session. Each takes a lot of work to prepare and every clause can be contested at several stages of the Bill’s passage through Parliament. The whole Scottish Government has introduced just 19 Bills since this time last year. (1)

So what’s the constitutional part of the Scottish Government working on? Well independence, matters arising from the Scotland Act such as Section 35, a push for wider devolved powers, and then, after independence, small matters like the Monarchy, the Second Chamber, citizens’ assemblies and so on. They simply won’t prioritise re-organising community councils because it’s not seen as important. There won’t be bandwidth to reform community councils this decade and probably not next decade either.

That means that at least for the near future we need to make the best of the system we have now.

Going back to Robin, Linda and Craig’s paper they state this:

The Community Councils we have instead of local government are essentially powerless and in many places are dysfunctional or non-existent (though excellent examples of Community Councils do exist) (2)

How do we take the excellent examples and make them normal?

First we need to challenge the way that organisations in Scotland consult with the “community.”

/rant mode on/ We would not like it if someone said “well I consulted BP and the British Union Against Vivisection and they both agreed with me so I can confidently state that Britain supports my dumb idea.

Just as having Britain in the name does not make an organisation representative of Britain being based in a community does not make an organisation representative for that community. And don’t even get me started about consultants who descend on communities and then translate what that communities views on, say, a new bypass are. They get paid the big bucks precisely because the community’s views are not what they will report them as being.

Want to know what the community thinks? Ask the democratically elected representative body with a duty to stand up for community opinion. /rant mode off/

So where the wording in official documents is something along the lines of “consult with the community” it needs to be changed to “consult with the community councils.”

Now let’s talk about the dormant community councils. Currently the regional councils are agnostic about the existence of these bodies. Indeed they may get a quieter life if no one had got anything organised. We need to pressure regional councils to want to see community councils start up and allow amalgamation if there are two adjacent places that can’t individually get the interest to start one but could do if allowed to form one together.

Next we need banking support that doesn’t require several hours of volunteer time to change a signatory or do anything else even vaguely complex. Perhaps that’s a role for the National Investment Bank.

But even as they are now Community Councils are great and here’s why:

  • The ear of the powerful. Theresa May has been paid over £2 million for her speeches since she stepped down as Prime Minister. On the face of it that’s completely bizarre. No one listened to her speeches when she was actually in charge. Why would anyone sit there for one now that she’s a nobody again and pay a small fortune for the privilege? The answer is of course that they’re not buying content nor entertainment they’re buying access. Well community councils have the local MP, MSP and councillors as ex officio members. They pay attention to our views and, to varying degrees, come to our meetings. Community councillors have access.
  • Money. We get free money. It’s not a lot but we get a grant from the regional Council for admin plus most councils get some wind farm money. A few thousand pounds to worthwhile local projects and schools is not insignificant.
  • More money. We can apply for grants. Here’s the Funding page from the Community Councils website run by the Improvement Service for Scotgov. https://www.communitycouncils.scot/help-and-support/funding. Currently my gold standard is my friend’s Parish Council in England – just look at all the worthwhile projects they’ve helped. https://www.blackbirdleysparishcouncil.gov.uk/_files/ugd/6d21f1_c7cb380f92bd44409b6b2c7d319b628b.pdf
  • It’s a fantastic opportunity for people who care about politics or about their home area or about climate or about just about any topic because you can get on the community council easily and then advance an issue that matters to the local community. Are they failing young people? Get active and tell them! We have many activists at Common Weal and here is one of the absolute best ways to get active.
  • It’s a great path into professional political careers. Anyone 16+ can do this and younger people can and do attend meetings and voice their opinions. It looks great on your cv as well as demonstrating lots of transferable skills.
  • Education. Community councillors get access to a wide range of Open University courses for free. (4)
  • CCES enquiries. If you, as a regular citizen, ask a question of your council you have certain rights under Freedom of Information laws. If a community councillor asks a question using the CCES system then it’s treated more seriously. This system is the same one used for responding to MPs and MSPs. The answer is logged, numbered and may be treated as a commitment by the Council staff. (Example is at (3) below).
  • Flood Groups. I set up a Flood Group recently with support from the Scottish Flood Forum and they encourage us to do it through the Community Council because that solves the burdens of Chair, Secretary and Treasurer, bank account, annual accounts and public liability insurance all of which I would have had to solve myself if I wasn’t able to use the Community Council’s pre-existing solutions. https://scottishfloodforum.org/services/community/#support-group
  • Being in the loop. I got an email today telling me that there are some specific mental health grants available for flood-affected people which I happened to really need to know about to help a family in my community but which was something the Universe just randomly decided to drop into my lap. Being active and involved makes good things happen.
  • Making your Community Council work is how we fix the Community Council system. It’s not a system problem it’s a perception problem. They don’t work because people think they don’t work. They’re “powerless” because people aren’t trying to do stuff or talking to the powerful about what’s wrong around here.

My last reason for championing Community Councils is because of you lot. Here at Common Weal. Common Weal is a think-and-do tank. If you want to do, if you want to push issues you care about such as care, energy efficiency, river pollution but you’re doing so as a regular citizen while there are community councillor vacancies in your area you’re missing out. So how about we all join our community councils and start spreading CW’s great ideas more widely?

Who knows if enough of us champion it CW’s proposal for development councils might even come to pass! 

Sources: 

3 thoughts on “Why Community Councils are Awesome…”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Confused by your reference to “Regional” Councils; they don’t exist in Scotland since 1996. Parish Councils in England have, I suspect (lack data) a traditionally stronger role than Scottish CCs? Traditionally the preserve of “old duffers” (I was a C C member at age 16 in 1978, so now an OD!); I agree that if the right folks, with energy, enthusiasm, political etc skills get involved, then even within the many limitations of the current set up, individual CCs can achieve a lot for community. But you really do have to be committed as you will encounter many bureaucratic obstacles and you need to spend much time effectively communicating with local folks, via a variety of means, to make it more than a talk shop. Agree about banking procedures, much too complex for small voluntary groups. Good luck!

    1. Ian Davidson

      PS: 1. CCs were effectively shut down by Covid and also by enforced restructuring/relections which resulted in many folks giving up. Tight controls on communications; any letter or publicity has to be approved by CC as a whole; the Chair/Sec cant just write stuff and send it off to other agencies, media even if tight deadlines.
      2. Planning issues are a major nightmare; just keeping up with what is proposed, reading the documents (thousands of pages for major developments); engaging with community is a full time job and you have strict deadlines to meet. During covid, councils met on zoom and approved lots of things with zero community input. Like Scot Gov emergency rules, they have got used to this mode of operating under emergency conditions.
      3. Many issues require engaging with other CCs as they affect wider area; this can take time and dealing with widely differing views of “democracy”!

    2. By “regional councils” I mean councils that represent a region such as Dumfries & Galloway, Highlands etc.

      I accept it is quite a lot of work although hopefully it’s possible to create virtuous circles. Success breeding enthusiasm and so on.

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