Have Community Councils passed their ‘Sell By Date’

Community Councils were set by the Local Government (Scotland) Act in 1973:

In addition to any other purpose which a community council may pursue, the general purpose of a community council shall be to ascertain, co-ordinate and express to the local authorities for its area, and to public authorities, the views of the community which it represents, in relation to matters for which those authorities are responsible, and to take such action in the interests of that community as appears to it to be expedient and practicable.”

I particularly note that Community Councils were required to take action in the interests of that community as appears to it to be expedient and practicable.

Nevertheless, Community Councils have to some extent been bypassed by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act of 2015.  Indeed, Community Councils were not mentioned in an early draft of the Bill.

I have asked and our Governance Director of West Lothian Council has confirmed that the 1973 Act has not been repealed. I.e. it still stands in parallel with the Community Empowerment Act of 2015.

As a Community Councillor in Linlithgow I am required to conform legally to the West Lothian Scheme for Community Councils whose purpose is set out in the Local Government (Scotland) Act in 1973

However, I note that our Ward Councillors are required to:

  • respond to their queries and investigate their concerns (casework)
  • communicate council decisions that affect them
  • know your patch and be aware of any problems
  • know and work with representatives of local organizations, interest groups and businesses
  • represent their views at council meetings
  • lead local campaigns on their behalf.

(see https://www.local.gov.uk/our-support/guidance-and-resources/councillors-guide-201718/councillors-role)

One mechanism for pursing these responsibilities is through the Local Area Committee at which Ward Councilors discuss with Council Officers and other organisations, such as the police, progress of actions related to the town.  But while Ward Councillors are ex-offico members of the Community Council little information is passed.

Further, in Linlithgow, we have a Community Development Trust whose remit is To make Linlithgow a better place to live and work, through a community led plan of action which provides services, amenities and/or financial support to local initiatives’. The Community Development Trust was set up in 2013.

There is clear overlap here between the Community Council, the Community Development Trust and the long-understood role of our Ward Councillors

So have Community Councils passed ‘their sell by date’?

  1. As I understand it, Community Councils were set up in response to the disbandment of Town Councils in Scotland and centralisation on Regional Councils.  Were Community Councils ‘just a sop’?
  2. The substantive review by COSLA in its Report “Effective Democracy - Reconnecting with Communities 2014” recommends increasing the number of Local Authorities to over 100 rather than reintroducing ‘Town Councils’.  One might, of course, expect COSLA to take this view!
  3. The Community Empowerment Bill places the Community Planning Partnership as the prime body responsible for Community matters in the Local Authority .
  4. The West Lothian Scheme, whilst recognising that “All community councils are members of the West Lothian Community Planning Partnership”; paragraph 13 of the Scheme, limits access to the Community Planning Partnership to just one representative from the West Lothian Association of Community Councils
  5. The Community Empowerment Act provides a new method for communities to raise matters of concern and for action with the Community Planning Partnership; the Participation Request. Participation Requests are West Lothian Local Authority’s ‘flavour of the month and The Community Council has been encouraged to raise one such request, the Redevelopment of the Vennel, the Vennel is the central core of Linlithgow.  Such Requests are now the preferred method for Community Councils fulfilling their role to “ascertain, co-ordinate and express to the local authorities for its area, and to public authorities, the views of the community which it represents”
  6. But Participation Requests are available to any Community Body within the Act.  In Linlithgow we have not only the Community Council but the Community Development Trust and Linlithgow Burgh Trust; all of which have the same concerns as to the future of the town.
  7. And of course, Ward Councillors remit embraces such concerns.

I suggest therefore that, despite the fact that the Local Government (Scotland) Act has not been repealed, its application, at least in Linlithgow, has been bypassed and the question arises should Community Councils be disbanded and responsibilities for Communities be confirmed as being that of the Local Authorities directly.  If so, then COSLA’s report of 2014 suggesting that the number of local authorities be increased to 100 or more should be pursued in earnest.

Mike Vickers

Why the contribution is important

My idea is crucial to the development of democracy in Scotland.

At present there is no clear view of how local democracy is supposed to work.  The matter has been exacerbated by the introduction of the Community Empowerment Act.

We now have the overarchiving Community Planning Partnership at local authority level and at ward level, the Community Council, the Ward Councillors and a growing number of Community Development Trusts all with much the same responsibilities and jockeying to bring what are fundamentally the same community issues forward and resolved.

In practise there is so much overlap and competition that nothing gets done.

The Community Empowerment Bill does introduce Participation Requests that may be a useful mechanism for formalising requests, but as such requests may be raised by any Community Body (of which the list above qualify) the basic concern remains as any of these bodies can make competing requests for the same issues and resolution.

Disbanding Community Councils in line with COSLA’s Report “Effective Democracy - Reconnecting with Communities 2014” recommends increasing the number of Local Authorities to over 100, and removes one level of democracy but this looks like further centralisation.  Community Councils, at least, give the opportunity for Communities to get involved in local democratic processes but they are powerless as confirmed at the recent Democracy Matters workshop.

Participation Requests have the value that Local Authorities must respond to them. But real work now needs to be done to create a consistent structure for transparent democratic decision making. The ‘Democracy Matters Consultation’ should be an opportunity for devising such a structure.

Once determined, new legislation needs to be enacted.

by mikevickers on December 01, 2018 at 11:16AM

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