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.


  1. Under the LibDems/SNP administration the Community Councils were a waste of time. As an ex-councillor, I can speak from experience.

    Get sent some bumph from the Hi’ Heid’yin Dawe each month and don’t bother the Great Ones (who have your best interests at the very bleeding heart of their very being). – LibDems – not Liberal or Democratic.

    At least under the previous Labour Administration CC’s were able to influence what was happening and now hopefully the new one, CC’s will again be treated with respect.

    5 years of wasted time to be made up but not holding my breath if Cardownie is in any way involved.

  2. Should Community Councils be influencing things if they’re not fulfilling their duty to consult the communities they serve?

  3. I a m not part of the Scottish system but taken as a general observation, I agree with the statement that too many community councils are operating with a too high a percentage of co-opted members, many of whom have been introduced by longer serving councilors in the quest for political party dominance, voting power and self preservation.

    This in many cases, as you say, leads to a very undemocratic process, but more importantly leaves co-opted councilors beholden to longer standing councilors, introduces a system of hierarchy and prevents a freedom of the vote by way of subtle, under the cover, pressures that can and in truth should be challenged and can be described as bullying.

    In my opinion, no community council should allow more than two co-opted members per ten elected members and then only in an emergency.

    All councils should be forced to call an election when councilors are needed to make up the numbers.n

    No council should allow a community councilor to sit on the council for more than eight to ten years (or two election terms of office), upon which time they should be made to stand down for at least a period of three years before they can apply to re-join that or any other community council.

    But that said, I do believe that community councils play a huge and important part in the role of local government and it would be a sad day if they ever were disbanded as they are the doorway to the man on the street and are the layer of government that create a sense of security for the public and the feeling that their concerns are being heard and taken forward on their behalf by people they know, trust and have confidence in. this is what keeps anarchy at bay.

    What really needs to happen is greater importance needs to be set on improving the monitoring system, allowing easier access and more support for new councilors with the guarantee of follow up and support. Too often, at present, councilors who do seek the help of the monitoring officer end up the loser.

    At present if a councilor were to go to the monitoring officers, they would also be even further outcast by their own colleagues on the council and in most cases would be pushed out at the first opportunity. This is a threat that prevents the assurance of fair play and a democratic processes.

    The monitoring officers are often run under the local authority umbrella, which is a cause for concern, as he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

    The local members for the unitary authority in the ward often sit on the community council as well as the unitary council, this also should not be allowed but instead it should be mandatary for unitary councilors to visit the community council meetings each month to give reports on unitary council matters that may concern the local community council and answer any questions or concerns their community council may have, in return but not to be a part of the council decision making process. Much like the police representation on community councils, they come give their report, take on board questions and concerns and then leave.

    By unitary councilors sitting on both councils, unitary and community, there is a link, which, at very least, gives concern or the assumption that there is the opportunity for the unitary members to have some control over the monitoring officers output, e.g. He who pays the piper calls the tune, so preventing community councilors from coming forward to air their concerns.

    Monitoring officers should be set up totally independent of the local authority unitary councils under a different roof and paid directly by the National Government, not by the unitary councils.

    Also there should be more information available to new councilors, who should be made totally aware of their duties and status in relation to longer standing members of their own council, i.e. that they are equal and have the same powers of speech. They already get this in paper form, but they need some form of personal connection with the monitoring officers to have support, backup and reassurance of this, over and above the council bullies, much like the roll of a links advisor in schools.

    In some cases there are councilors who have been on the council for up to thirty years, do very little other than use their degree of knowledge of the system built up over the years to dominate the new councilors and work to rotate the newer councilors to ensure no one becomes too knowledgeable or as knowledgeable as themselves and also they put pressure on new councilors who do make themselves more aware of the rules and guidance for councilors, all to the end of maintaining party political dominance and self promotion within the community and who, in truth, care little for the ward or the community they represent.
    This is what we need to stamp out. Not the community council principle itself. We need to put more emphasis on councilors being there to iron out the concerns of the community, to improve the community facility and to spread a sense of commitment and care within the community.

    Also in my opinion town Clerks, in many cases, become too powerful because of their own efficiencies, matched against new councilors, who are not yet familiar with the role of the council and of councilors, they take liberties and step over the line, too often actually making decisions for the council, rather than advising and supporting the council as is their remit. You then get long standing councilors joining forces with the town clerks to rule and run the rest of the council, with decisions being made in the Town clerks offices between these parties and put before the full council as a fete-a-complit for ratification, rather than taken before the full council for a democratic decision.

    So to sumarise, it is not the community council itself as a corporate body that needs disbanding, the following rules should in my opinion be applied:

    1. There should be closer communication with monitoring officers. thereby providing more support, reassurance and back up for new councilors on their remit as a councilor.

    2. Monitoring officers should be separated completely from local unitary council control and should not be paid by the local unitary council.

    3. No councilor should be allowed to sit on the council for more than eight to ten years without standing down for a minimum of at least three years before being allowed to apply to re-join that or any other community council. They should have received enough experience and training at this point to be encouraged to move on to stand for election at unitary council level, indeed community councils should be a training ground and feeder base for local unitary council election candidates. thereby making the most of the public funds used to train them and the experience gained during their duty on the community council.
    4. There should be tighter regulation on Town clerks, to prevent them taking on the duties or decision making of the elected councilors.
    5. Town clerks should be answerable only to their own community councilors and not be allowed to take instructions or be influenced by local unitary councilors, which often happens.
    6. there should be no more than two co-opted members allowed to every ten elected councilors on any council and only then in emergency cases and elections should be called for all replacements.
    7. No unitary councilor should be allowed to sit on the Community council as well as the unitary council.
    8 It should be mandatory that all unitary councilors should attend, every full council meeting of the community council for their own ward, for the purpose of reporting on any matters of relevance to their community and to answer questions and take back to the unitary council any concerns of the community council. However, they should not be allowed to speak on any other matter or be a part of the decision making process of that council.
    9. Finally in the interests of fair and democratic voting there should be no husband and wife teams or family member teams sitting on one particular council. where they invariably will and currently do vote with each other to try to sway the vote.

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