Heart of the community
Since the reorganisation of Scottish local authorities in the mid-70s, around 1,200 community councils sprung up across the country, each playing a crucial role in determining, co-ordinating and expressing local opinion. At a time when localism is a key buzzword and the Scottish Government is currently consulting on the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, these important organisations are often ignored or misunderstood. Th e scrutiny of planning applications is a particularly important role but community councils have other functions in connecting local people to the workings of government at all levels.
Neither a tier of local government nor a voluntary body, community councils bridge the gap between local authorities and communities, and help to make public bodies aware of the opinions and needs of the communities they represent.
According to the Scottish Government, their primary purpose is to ascertain and express the views of the community to the local authority and other public bodies. Many community councils also involve themselves in a wide range of other activities including fundraising, organising community events, undertaking environmental and educational projects and much more.
Community councils were created by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Th e Act required local authorities to introduce community council schemes for their area, outlining various arrangements including elections, meetings, boundaries, and fi nance.
Local authorities have statutory oversight of community councils and, in consultation with them, the freedom to tailor schemes to the particular circumstances of their area. Local authorities and other bodies consult with community councils on issues aff ecting the community but these issues depend to a large extent on what is important to each community. Councils are required to consult community councils on planning applications and many choose to involve them in the community planning process.
Last year, the national leadership of Scotland’s community councils was thrown into doubt as the Association of Scottish Community Councils was legally wound up. The charity said it had decided to fold due to a “massive” funding cut from the Scottish Government.
The Government then set up a short life working group to look at the subject, which reported in September. The purpose of the report and its recommendations was “to provide an informed basis to act as a platform for wider discussion and engagement with community councillors and those with an interest in the community council sector on the future policy development of community councils in Scotland. The group’s recommendations sit alongside proposals on the role of community councils being explored in the consultation on ideas for the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill, and following wider dialogue and engagement, any proposals requiring legislative change will be considered as part of the Bill process.”
The working group came up with a number of recommendations and stated that throughout discussions, it was clear that fundamental to the relevance of community councils is that their place as a statutory community representative is respected and validation is given to the work that they undertake in a range of local authority processes.
It said: “During the group’s deliberations, a range of roles and projects undertaken by community councils for and on behalf of their communities were discussed and considered. This demonstrated that current legislative provisions do not preclude many innovative, forward thinking community councils from expanding their horizons to meet the needs and aspirations of their communities. It was acknowledged, however, that the support structures and availability of information to enable this to happen as a matter of course is patchy and varies throughout Scotland and that capacity building through training and robust support structures need to be developed as these are seen to be key. The group were mindful of the fact that their recommendations must recognise the diversity of Scotland’s community councils, currently undertaking a variety of roles within communities and with different needs; priorities; and expectations. It was considered that although statutory bodies, community councils are comprised of volunteers with busy and varied family lives and that to impose legislative duties on them may be counterproductive, as this may discourage wider involvement or force those already involved to leave as the role may become burdensome.”
Local Government Minister Derek Mackay told Holyrood: “The short life working group reported with a range of recommendations and they range from accountability, representativeness, communication and liability. We are working with COSLA on how to respond [to this] but I think an immediate response now would be premature because I’m working on the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.
“I recognise the issues which exist for community councils, as a former community councillor myself. We have two choices ahead of us, one is community councils wither on the vine and die and have no role, the other is we try and rejuvenate them. I’m on the ‘let’s try and rejuvenate them’ side. Exactly how we do that, we’ll respond as part of the Bill because it fits within that workstream. There’s much that can be done, I see a future for them but I don’t want to prejudice what might emerge from the Bill.”
Edinburgh Association of Community Councils (EACC)
The EACC is a liaison body that supports community councils currently up and running in Edinburgh. The association holds four executive meetings a year, an AGM and a series of Q&A sessions throughout the year. These various meetings allow community councillors to network with each other, council officials and other groups outwith their area.
EACC chairman David Salton told Holyrood: “We’re not a governing body or a court of appeal – each community council is autonomous. What we do is try and raise the profile of community councils in Edinburgh. We are able to get funding for ourselves and we get the use of council premises for meetings. We try to raise awareness among community councils, and to a certain extent, getting them to think outside the box. It is a useful forum for sharing best practice, there’s a considerable amount of experience at our meetings.
“It is very important to us that we respect the independence of community councils. For example, we wouldn’t get involved in a specific planning application, unless the community council came to us and wanted some advice.” Salton said community councils are comprised of individuals who have awareness, understanding, knowledge and experience of their community, right down to the grassroots. He added: “Very often the council will decide something, they run it through their computers and it all comes out fine. But as locals, we know it won’t work.
“The Community Empowerment Bill is laudable but what they don’t address is at the end of the day, for us, community councils are an interest. Each community council’s grant is around £800, so it’s about having the resources to back that up. A lot of what they’re talking about in community empowerment is already happening in Edinburgh, especially looking at the neighbourhood partnerships. It’s about resources and not just money; we’re talking about training and meeting areas as well.”