The purpose of Community Councils is to represent small areas within Local Authorities. This page gives some of the background information necessary to understand what ‘community council’ means in Scotland, and who the key stakeholders are.
Scotland has a population of 5.3 million; local government being divided into 32 Local Authorities (LAs) with populations varying between 20,000 and 600,000 and ranging between densely populated urban areas and remote rural communities. Scotland has the distinction of having the largest units of local government in Europe (Bort, McAlpine, & Morgan, 2012), in terms of average area and population (163 200), and with the fewest elected representatives (only 1223 councillors in total – less than 1 in 2000 stand for election: in Norway, 1 in 81 stand for local election).
This is the context in which Community Councils (CCs) exist.
They were introduced by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 – they are partly a continuation of the burgh councils that existed until the reorganisation in 1973. Their purpose is to ascertain, co-ordinate and express the views of their communities and take “expedient and practicable action” (Scottish Government, 2005).
Stakeholders: Local authorities and devolved government
LAs are required to establish schemes for their Community Councils, detailing the numbers of community councillors for each CC, election arrangements, and giving advice on running meetings and handling budgets: in general, they set out how CCs can legally and responsibly do whatever they undertake. Decisions about what to undertake are left to CCs, subject to the general purposes outlined in the 1973 and 1994 Acts. LAs aid CC activities by contributing to running expenses and providing other services such as accommodation, though the average CC annual budget is £400 ‘matching [their] near zero powers and near zero number of contested elections’ (Bort, McAlpine, & Morgan, 2012) ) – enough to hire a monthly meeting room, pay for some stationery and precious little else.
In practice, contacts between local authorities and their community councils are managed through officials known as Community Council Liaison Officers (CCLOs). Some LAs, e.g. Highland Council, divide their CCs into groups with a CCLO for each group. In brief, CCLOs represent, oversee, and obtain and implement LA services for their CCs. Issues with clarity of remits and seniority of the CCLO role have led to the Scottish Government recommending that CCLOs should have ‘suitable seniority … to ensure that both the CC work and working relationship is appropriately progressed at LA level’ (Scottish Government, 2012f).
Another significant stakeholder is the Improvement Service, a public body funded by the Scottish Government and Local Authorities together to “help improve the efficiency, quality and accountability of local public services in Scotland by providing advice, consultancy and support.” This means it has a key role in supporting and coordinating the work done by CCLOs
The Scottish Government and before that the UK Government have made several attempts to invigorate Community Councils, (see Scottish Government (2005, 2012))
The devolved Scottish Government is responsible for the legal framework that CCs operate within – this means their roles and powers are drifting away from their English and Welsh equivalents. Nevertheless, it is worth making the comparison.
In terms of impact, Community Councils have had mixed success at best (Goodlad, Flint, Kearns, Keoghan, Paddison and Raco (1999), Local Communities Reference Group (2012)). Two obvious causes are:
Limited responsibility and no authority
CCs have no obligatory service-provision duties: service-provision is associated with Local Authorities and central government (and organisations funded by them).
Community councils do have three statutory representative roles: community opinions, planning and (alcohol) licensing . They also have a statutory right to be consulted on applications for planning permission: that is, a role in spatial planning rather than community planning (thanks to the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994). They are not compulsory: they are only mandated 20 or more electors call for them and in 2014, of the 1514 possible CCs, only 1215 were active; elections are largely uncontested (BBC, 2011a) and attract a low turnout.
Low levels of participation
In 1999, potentially 1390 CCs could exist, but only 1152 were active (83%), covering 83% of the Scottish population (Goodlad, et al., 1999, p. 21). By 2011, the figures were nearly unchanged at 1369, 1156 and 84% respectively (Ryan & Cruickshank, 2012, p. 18).
Uncontested elections have been a feature of CCs throughout their existence as candidate numbers have very often been less than the number of places available – in 1999, the number of Community Councillors was around 65% of the potential number, and only 17% of CCs had contested elections. Community Councillors were generally aged over 40, and often were not representative of the demographics of their areas (Goodlad, et al., 1999). All this has combined to reduce their democratic legitimacy.
…Hey, I’m an academic:
The main sources used for this page are:
Cruickshank, P., Ryan, B., Smith, C. (2014). ‘Hyperlocal e-democracy’? The experience of Scotland’s Community Councils. In: Parycek, P., Edelmann, N. (Eds.) CeDEM14 Proceedings (2014 ed.). (pp. 73-84). Krems, Austria: Edition Donau-Universität Krems.
Cruickshank, P., Ryan, B., Smith, C. (2014). Disconnected Democracy? A Survey Of Scottish Community Councils’ Online Presences. Scottish Affairs, 23(4), 486-507.
Ryan B,, Cruickshank, P. (2012) Scottish Community Councils online: a survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Napier University. Retrieved from http://www.iidi.napier.ac.uk/c/publications/publicationid/13373555
Ryan, B., Cruickshank, P. (2014). Scottish Community Councils online: the 2014 survey. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Napier University. Retrieved from http://www.iidi.napier.ac.uk/c/publications/publicationid/13379605
It worth looking at the Wikipedia article – it’s not great, but it does give some information not covered here.
BBC. (2011). Community Councils in your area. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-15540699.
Bort, E., McAlpine, R., & Morgan, G. (2012, April 29). The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland. Glasgow: Reid Foundation. http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/The-Silent-Crisis1.pdf.
Goodlad, R., Flint, J., Kearns, A., Keoghan, M., Paddison, R., & Raco, M. (1999). The Role and Effectiveness of Community Councils with Regard to Community Consultation. Edinburgh: Scottish Office Central Research Unit
Local Communities Reference Group (2012) Submission to the Scottish Government on the purposes of community councils. Edinburgh: Scottish Government. Retrieved from http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0039/00393689.pdf
Scottish Government. (2005). What can we do to help community councils fulfil their role? A discussion paper by the Scottish Executive. Retrieved from http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2005/10/31132008/20095
Scottish Government. (2012). Community Council Short-Life Working Group Report and Recommendations. Retrieved from Scottish Government: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0040/00403921.pdf