by Sean Watters
Community Councils: Representing their communities?
There has been much talk in the air recently of local democracy and empowering communities; Reform Scotland have published a report on Renewing Local Government; the Jimmy Reid Foundation have produced The Silent Crisis; the author and campaigner Andy Wightman has launched a Campaign for Real Local Government; and the new City of Edinburgh Council administration is talking of handing back powers to a more local level.
In all of this Community Councils are sometimes mentioned, on occasion as being symptomatic of a problem but at other times as a possible route to reinvigorating local democracy. However, if we are to go down that route a hard look needs to be taken at how Community Councils currently operate.
There are 43 Community Councils in Edinburgh. At the last round of elections in 2009, not a single election actually took place. Nowhere were there more candidates than places, and so no elections were triggered. That has to raise concerns about accountability and legitimacy.
There is an argument that by giving Community Councils more powers people will take more interest in them and participation will increase. But if power is simply passed over to Community Councils as they currently operate, then that could lead to a diminishing of democratic accountability, because there are large question marks as to how well Community Councils are currently performing their duties.
That’s not to say that Community Councils don’t do good things. Community Councillors are well intentioned people, who care about their communities, and give up their time to that end. But when you look at the rules and the guidance on Community Councils, what’s clear is that the core duty is consultation. They exist to act as the voice of the community, but to do that you first have to find out what the community wishes to say. And for too many Community Councils meaningful consultation with the communities they serve is minimal. Yes they have limited resources, and as volunteers there are constraints of time, but in today’s world of electronic and social media consultation doesn’t have to be onerous. Yet many Community Councils remain resistant to it.
However, there’s another side to this, because whatever deficiencies exist within the function of Community Councils aren’t simply down to Community Councils themselves. It’s in large measure down to a failure of Local Authorities to take Community Councils seriously.
In the City of Edinburgh’s Scheme for Community Councils there is the following provision;
“Community councils should engage widely with their local communities to represent their views on the Neighbourhood Partnerships. It is essential that these views are demonstrated to be representative of the community and, accordingly, the community council will have in place recognised consultative mechanisms to validate their views; and devise strategies to secure greater involvement by all sectors of the community.”
A laudable statement of intent that, unfortunately, is simply nonsense.
Has anyone at City of Edinburgh Council ever asked any Community Council to demonstrate that the views they’re expressing are representative of the community?
Have Community Councils ever been asked to report on the consultative mechanisms they have used? To provide some evidence that they are indeed accurately reflecting what their community thinks?
Has anyone at City of Edinburgh Council ever conducted an audit or review of Community Councils to assess how well they are fulfilling their functions and following the guidance they are issued with?
The answer to all the above questions is no.
Performance monitoring and evaluation is fairly standard practice these days, certainly within many departments of the Council. So why not when it comes to Community Councils?
Because the City of Edinburgh Council doesn’t take Community Councils seriously enough to bother.
Certainly they’ll protest that that isn’t the case, and that they take the role of Community Councils very seriously indeed, but if they did they’d take some interest in how effectively they were operating. They don’t. The Council’s attitude to Community Councils is revealed by their actions, not their words.
As previously stated Community Councils do good things, and the individuals who volunteer are conscientious and well meaning. So certainly Community Councils could provide a useful platform to build from. But if there is a concern about the state of local democracy, before we look to another reorganisation of Local Government or devolving powers to arbitrarily defined communities, we could first take the simple step of trying to ensure that Community Councils are actually performing the duties they’re supposed to be performing.
That is finding out what their communities think, and accurately reflecting that.
Sean Watters is Chair of Portobello for a New School (PFANS). He also represents Towerbank Parents Council at Portobello Community Council meetings and you can follow him on Twitter.