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Blog: Community Councils on the agenda at Holyrood

21 June 2023

Blog: Community Councils on the agenda at Holyrood

To mark the 50th anniversary of the legislation which saw the creation of Community Councils in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee held an evidence session last month to look at how Community Councils are working now – and how they could be improved in the future.

The first panel included Brian Davey and Emma Swift from the Improvement Service (IS), which provides resources and support to community councillors and Community Council Liaison Officers (CCLOs), alongside Dr Oliver Escobar from the University of Edinburgh and Andrew Paterson from Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC). Jackie Weaver, who became a household name during the pandemic thanks to her firm handling of a contentious parish council meeting, was also on the panel to provide insight on the significant differences between Community Councils in Scotland and Town and Parish Councils in England, where she works for the Cheshire Association of Local Councils.

Community Councils vs Town and Parish Councils

Committee convener Arianne Burgess MSP got the ball rolling with a question about the strengths of Community Councils and what role they could play in democratic renewal at a local level.

Dr Escobar highlighted the important role that Community Councils can play at the heart of their communities, despite having to work in difficult circumstances, while Emma Swift from the IS mentioned the vital support that many Community Councils provided during the pandemic – and how that resilience work has continued to address other challenges.

The committee was particularly interested in the differences between Community Councils in Scotland and the Town and Parish Council system in England, and Jackie Weaver was able to explain in some detail how the system differs north and south of the border:

“Over my 25-year career, there has been an enormous change in England. Twenty-five years ago, our town and parish councils were very much like your community councils except that they had tax raising powers, although they did not do very much with them. We have seen central government funding for our principal authorities in England reduce dramatically and we have seen town and parish councils stepping up and filling the gaps.

“The assumption is that anybody trying to raise money by tax will be attacked: nobody likes paying tax. One of the unique points about a town or parish council, however, is that you can see that every penny that is raised is spent locally.

“The other thing that we are able to do is borrow money. We have a number of councils that take on large infrastructure projects. Clearly, if you are a parish council with perhaps 10,000 electors, you will not be able to raise half a million pounds just through your council tax without it having a serious impact on a household’s budget. We are able to borrow money and we are seeing an increase in the amount of money that our town and parish councils are borrowing to deliver serious infrastructure.

“One of the things that is absolutely essential for us to succeed as a movement is proper support. We have 10,000 parish councils and an army of about 7,500 clerks who manage those. We provide support, advice, guidance, help and so on to about 240 parish councils in Cheshire, and that costs our principal authorities £7,000 a year. We are talking peanuts, but what it delivers on the ground because of the way that we work is something really exceptional.”

Legal status of Community Councils

Ivan McKee MSP raised questions about how Community Councils are perceived, given the differences in how they operate across the country and even within local authority areas. Dr Escobar spoke about how difficult it can be for Community Councils to operate effectively because they simply do not have the powers to carry out many of the activities which are needed in their local area. This can make it difficult to recruit new community councillors, which means that Community Councils are often not representative of the communities they serve.

There are, however, very clear legal reasons why Community Councils are unable to provide some of the same services as Town and Parish Councils, as Emma Swift explained:

“The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 created community councils as unincorporated bodies, which is why they cannot do community asset transfers. It also excludes them from some funding applications. The conditions of funding applications sometimes say, “You must be an incorporated body”.

“There are things such as local place plans that they can get involved in and use to create ideas about what they want in their local community, with the idea that the local authority can then take some of those ideas forward. However, they are always reliant on other people to take those ideas forward because of the restrictions that have been placed on them right from the start.”

Planning and Community Engagement

Willie Coffey MSP raised the issue of planning, and particularly whether Community Councils have access to the proper expertise and resources to help them navigate the planning system. Dr Escobar highlighted the survey of community councillors from 2019, in which most respondents identified public and community engagement as the area in which they wanted more support. Emma Swift spoke about the partnership between the Improvement Service and the Open University, which provides free access to online courses in a range of relevant skills for community councillors, as well as the partnerships we have developed with other organisations such as Sustrans, Scottish Tech Army and Geoxphere to share their existing resources and tools with Community Councils.

Parish and Town Councils also have a role in the planning process, but Jackie Weaver warned against creating “an army of new planners”; community councillors need to be able to navigate and understand the system, but don’t need to become experts in planning to do that.

Mark Griffin MSP asked about community engagement, and how Community Councils ensure that their views are representative and not just that of individual members.

Dr Escobar referred back to his point about Community Councils needing to be representative to give them legitimacy, and went on to speak about the difficult position that Community Councils find themselves in and how this could be resolved:

“We have had Community Councils for 50 years and, although we need to celebrate the achievement, I think that the time has come to either reform or rebuild. We could reform Community Councils so that we have one of the most decentralised systems of governance, as we should do if we want to tackle issues locally and nationally. Alternatively, we could rebuild them. We could just start again if people do not want to reform them as they are.

“However, that reform is not just about Community Councils. If you think carefully and place Community Councils on a map and see the connections that they have to community planning partnerships, local government, health and social care integration boards, third sector interfaces and the planning process, you realise that, if you had highly functioning, dynamic, participative and  inclusive Community Councils, you could unlock a lot of potential in those systems of local government that do not work well at the moment. It is not a silver bullet, but it is not far from it if we bite the bullet and do that reform.”

Community Empowerment Act

Miles Briggs MSP asked about the impact of the Community Empowerment Act, which Emma Swift pointed out is a mixed bag for Community Councils because of their unincorporated status; some parts of the legislation apply to Community Councils, while other sections require the work to be taken forward by development trusts or SCIOs (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisations).

The panel then made their concluding remarks, including the importance of involving Community Councils themselves in any local democracy discussions and consultation. Dr Escobar summed up his thoughts on the way forward for Community Councils:

“My main concluding point is to say that surely the time has come—we have got to do this. Some people might ask whether we should spend time on such reform and whether people care about it. People care about having better places to live in, having better local services, improving their life condition and addressing things such as the cost of living crisis. All those things require a vibrant combination of local institutions that can make things happen. Community councils have to be part of that, and they have been part of that in many places. We need to learn and to go for the reform. The problem is not about knowing what to do but about knowing how to do it.”

The second panel featured community councillors from across Scotland, with representatives from Moray, West Lothian, South Lanarkshire, Edinburgh, Clackmannanshire, Shetland and Aberdeenshire, as well as Debra Duke, Community Councils Liaison Officer in Moray, who has also worked as a parish clerk in England. Individual Community Councils were represented as well as forums and associations of Community Councils in West Lothian, Moray, Shetland and Edinburgh.

This session provided a unique opportunity for community councillors to speak about the range of work they carry out across Scotland, including innovative projects like the Cambuslang Bank Hub, as well as raising concerns about the difficulties they face and making suggestions for how Community Councils can be improved in the future.

Community Councils and Local Authorities

Community councillors were asked about the relationship with their local authorities and the support provided by the Improvement Service through the Scottish Community Councils website and the Knowledge Hub group, where community councillors can share best practice and ask each other questions.

Bill Pitt, of New Aberdour, Tyrie and Pennan Community Council, highlighted the importance of the relationship between Community Councils and the local council:

“As a Community Council, we do not work in a vacuum; we work very closely with Aberdeenshire Council and it is a two-way street. We need the council as much as possible and we appreciate and respect its assistance, including from individual departments and so forth.

“Aberdeenshire Council and other local authorities need Community Councils. We are the eyes and the ears for the local authority. It is very important for Community Councils to work with the local authority to identify particular funds that might be available and solutions that we can work together on. Working closely with the local authority is the most important thing that we can do, because it has the expertise to point us in certain directions in areas that we might need some guidance on.”

John Bachtler of Cambuslang Community Council spoke about the work South Lanarkshire Council has done to support community councillors to understand the planning system, including the creation of a toolkit to help Community Councils navigate issues around planning. The Joint Forum of Community Councils in West Lothian, represented at this event by Donald Stavert, enjoys a very positive relationship with West Lothian Council, meeting the chief executive twice a year; though Donald was at pains to point out that this good working relationship doesn’t stop them from criticising West Lothian Council when they need to! The Joint Forum has also worked closely with the Improvement Service over the last 18 months, including an ultimately unsuccessful joint bid for Scottish Government funding to support the use of the Consul software for community engagement.

In talking about the difficulties faced by Community Councils as a result of their unincorporated status under the 1973 legislation, Steve Kerr of Edinburgh Association of Community Councils was clear that there needs to be a change:

“Frankly, I believe that we need to go back to the drawing board. We need to go back to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and free up some of those opportunities and to remove some of the restrictions that were placed on community councils in the act.

“We can be involved locally in agitating for a community asset transfer for a community centre—which we did, representing the community council—but we cannot be physically involved, which, quite honestly, is an inhibitor. That would be something that would be appreciated by the community because we could be at the forefront of things. We do play a co-ordinating role but I do not think that it is widely appreciated as it might be.”

CCLO support for Community Councils

Debra Duke, CCLO at Moray Council, was able to bring her unique perspective of both the Scottish and English systems, having previously worked as a parish clerk in England. As well as many of the same points about clerk support and tax raising powers mentioned by Jackie Weaver, Debra also impressed on the committee the need for Community Councils to be supported by good governance through policies and working practices. She highlighted that these are often shared between local authorities, as many CCLOs only work part-time or have other roles to perform:

“I work 20 hours a week; I have 17 established community councils, but I could have 20. I am just firefighting and I am finding that I cannot put in place the proper support that the councils need. The Improvement Service delivered a brilliant session of social media training to the Northern Alliance of community council liaison officers last year; it was a train-the-trainer session, but I have not had the time to pass that training on to the Moray councils.

“Everyone is quite stretched and no one has enough time or resources. If Community Councils had more resources to, say, employ secretaries, that would really strengthen their ability to carry out the work that they need to do.”

Future of Community Councils

On the future of Community Councils, Donald Stavert spoke about a blueprint which had been developed by all the West Lothian Community Councils before the pandemic, and which was going to be the main subject for discussion at a national conference organised by the Joint Forum of Community Councils in West Lothian for 10 June. The issue of funding for Community Councils was raised by Bill Pitt, who pointed out that Community Councils provide an excellent return on investment:

“Someone on the previous panel said that there are something in the neighbourhood of 1,200 community councils in Scotland; if you look at the budget numbers—that is, at the admin grants received by the Community Councils from the local authority—you will see that, at the high end, they might get £1,000. In other words, £1.2 million of public money funds community councils throughout Scotland, and we can see how much Scotland and its communities gain from that little bit of money and that very small investment.

“Clearly, if what we are looking at is Community Councils being given more powers—or whatever the future might hold for them—we can only imagine what return we might get if the councils had serious funding.”

Recruiting young people to Community Councils

All the panellists had something to say about the difficulties of recruiting young people to join Community Councils, as well as the various methods and initiatives that they have used to try and attract a younger demographic. Alastair Kennedy, from the Joint Community Councils of Moray, highlighted an initiative where they gave a group of local youngsters £50,000 from the Investing in Communities Fund to run their own participatory budgeting exercise, to make sure that the money was being spent on something important to them. Cambuslang Community Council has reached out to local youth groups and has involved students on the Community Development course at Glasgow University in individual projects, while Shayne McLeod from the Association of Shetland Community Councils spoke about their work with the local Scottish Youth Parliament member and a local project called OPEN, which has seen young people set up and run their own committee. Barry Cathie, himself a relatively young community councillor from Rutherglen, was clear about the importance of involving young people in the process:

“We need a voice of young people in the community. At the moment, there is not much for them to get involved in. They cannot really voice their concerns. If they come to meetings on subjects that they are interested in, their voices will be heard and they can bring their experience to us and tell us things that they know that we do not know.

“It will also give them training in how to become involved, and how to become a community councillor when the time comes—I think that people need to be over 18 to get elected. It is good to have that because, as I say, it gives them a voice and improves their image in the community as they become better people.”

The final words of the session came from John Bachtler, who urged the committee to be bold in their actions:

“I wanted to personally encourage the committee to go for significant reform, because there is a real democratic deficit. I work on regional local development across Europe. We have virtually the poorest community empowerment and representation structures in Europe, given the absence of a community level of influence. We have towns of 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 people that are without any form of self-government. I encourage the committee to think radically.”

You can watch a recording or read a full transcript of the evidence session on the Scottish Parliament website.