Reform Scotland

Most Local Democracy – Stuart Paton

In Scotland, the most local level of democracy is the Community Council. Community Councils are supposed to be elected every 3 years. However, in many cases no election takes place as there are fewer nominations than places. The statutory powers of the Community Councils are very limited, solely in relation to planning matters where their views rank on the same level as other statutory consultees (e.g SEPA, Historic Scotland). When working well, they provide a very useful conduit between local communities and the Local Council Councillors who sit on the Community Council in an ex officio capacity. The Community Councils have very limited funding to run their own business (e.g hiring meeting place, printing) and have absolutely no other budgetary control. Even the changes in the Community Empowerment Act of 2015 only made minor practical changes to the powers of the Community Councils.

For comparison, English Parish Councils have significantly more power. It is worth pointing  out that ‘Parish Council’ is a strange term as it relates to bodies ranging from a Parish Council covering a few hundred residents to large towns and small cities- Northampton Town Council, formally a Parish Council, covers a population of about 130,000 which is larger than about half of Scotland’s unitary authorities. Parish Councils have substantially more powers than Scottish Community Councils including providing services and faculties. They are largely funded by a precept to the Council Tax charged by the relevant council. 

From my own experience sitting on Dunkeld and Birnam Community Council in Perth and Kinross, I think there are a number of elements which can work well. Community Council’s generally meet regularly- they have an obligation to meet at least three times per year but often meet much more regularly than this. This allows them to make timely contributions on planning applications. They are also a focal point for other issues to be brought to wider community attention. Specific examples from my experience relate to the A9 Dualling Project where the Community Council set up a sub-group to deal with this matter on behalf of the community, which was recognised as the local community voice by the various bodies handling the projects- including Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government, and local MSPs.

On the whole, Community Councillors take their role seriously and in a business-like manner. In light of this some community councils take on additional roles. In our area, the panel which allocates the Community Benefit fund from a local windfarm has representatives from five local Community Council and each Community Council can itself disburse up to £5,000 per year in ‘microgrants’. This indeed is one of the main purposes for which local people recognise the Community Council, even although it is not one of the defined roles.

However, there are a number of ways in which Community Councils do not work well. These issues are interlinked and related.

First, they are in a sense too local. They represent about 2,000 people and particularly in local areas everyone knows everyone else.

Secondly, in most cases the Community Councillors are not actually elected because there are fewer nominations than positions, hence undermining the democratic legitimacy.

And related to these issues , Community Councillors as a group are not particularly representative of the local community, consisting often of older, middle class residents who have fewer time and caring constraints.

As a result, it can be easy to get onto a Community Council to pursue a particular hobby horse, which may or may not be of benefit to the wider community. Local people have very limited rights of recall if the Community Councillors are not satisfying roles and responsibilities. My experience is that the relevant local authority, who provide invaluable support and advice, is reluctant to intervene in local matters partly because they have an obligation to maintain the existence of Community Councils and partly because they, understandably, do not want to get involved in local, personal bickering.

It could be argued that the lack of powers and responsibilities deters people from getting involved. Throughout Scotland, local people do want to take control of running activities and assets in and for their local communities. As a specific example, Community Development Trusts are now widespread throughout Scotland- 350 are members of Development Trusts Association Scotland. These bodies are often set up to take ownership and management of a local asset or as a result of community engagement and consultation captured in a Community Action Plan. The Development Trusts are generally now set up as Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisations (SCIOs), reporting to the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) which provides oversight and governance. As SCIOs they will often be membership organisations with a significant proportion of locals as members- and hence arguably more representative than the Community Council.

The Dunkeld, Birnam and Area Development Trust which developed out of a community led Covid response was formally established in late 2022 and already has about 100 members (out of a total local population of about 2,000). If working well, the Development Trust can work in partnership with the Community Council, but I am also aware of challenges where the Community Council has to deal with the messy stuff (literally and metaphorically) while the Development Trust does the interesting stuff.

The prevalence of Development Trusts demonstrates the willingness of many local communities to take on responsibilities that go beyond the role of the Community Councils. This is partly addressed by the Community Empowerment Act- the need for consultation, right to buy, participatory budgeting and Participation Requests which give locals the right to take on community assets. However, why not take this a step further? Why shouldn’t local communities take on the same responsibilities as Parish Councils in England? In addition to the assets being managed and activities being run by Development Trusts, why shouldn’t Community Councils take on local services- street cleaning, gritting paths in winter, park maintenance- funded by an allocation from the local council. This may not work in every community- and there would probably need to be, for example, minimum thresholds in elections for services to be divested.  Local communities would also need to recognise the risks involved- if the path isn’t gritted, the finger of blame can be pointed much more locally. However, local Development Trusts are already often delivering these types of service very successfully. Widening the remit of Community Councils so they have real responsibilities could address the various issues I have identified with their current structure. Pushing more accountability and responsibility to a really local level could breathe new life into the most local level of democracy.

Stuart Paton was a member of Dunkeld & Birnam Community Council, 2012-2020, Chair: 2016-2020 and is currently Treasurer of Dunkeld, Birnam and Area Development Trust from its formation in 2022-present. He writes in a personal capacity.

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