May 23rd 2023 marks an important date in the local government diary as the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee holds a session on community councils to coincide with the 50th anniversary of their establishment in Scotland.
With the infamous Jackie Weaver sharing insights on parish councils, the committee is then following up with a panel of community councillors representing Edinburgh, Shetland, Aberdeenshire, West Lothian, Moray, Clackmannanshire and Cambuslang in South Lanarkshire as well as contributions from academics and the Improvement Service.
In light of this, LGIU Scotland decided to take a look at the role of community councils in Scotland’s local government system and showcase how the Improvement Service seeks to provide information, support and resources to Scotland’s 1,200 community councils and the 10,000+ volunteers who serve as community councillors.
What are Community Councils?
Established under the Local Government Act 1973, the role of community councils was first set out:
“to ascertain, co-ordinate and express to the local authorities for its area, and to public authorities, the views of the community which it represents, in relation to matters for which those authorities are responsible, and to take such action in the interests of that community as appears to it to be expedient and practicable.” (legislation.gov.uk)
Scotland is currently reported to have some 1,200 community councils, but despite the fact that they have been around for half a century, there hasn’t been a major review of community councils’ functions in recent years. In 1999, a Commission on local government and the Scottish parliament chaired by Neil McIntosh, amongst other things, looked at the conduct of council business and community councils.
In 2011, the Scottish Government set up a short-life working group to examine their future. This produced a report in 2012, which recommended better sharing of good practice and experience between community councils, and more joint working between them and local authorities.
In 2015, the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act to “to empower community bodies through the ownership or control of land and buildings, and by strengthening their voices in decisions about public services.” With this came frameworks for the establishment, a code of conduct for community councillors, model standing orders and more.
In 2019, the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) published a powerful report exploring how community councils can contribute to democratic renewal in Scotland. Hearing from over 600 people involved in community councils, the report proposed nine recommendations and stated that ‘opportunities, therefore, exist for community councils in this emerging policy landscape’.
Insights from the Improvement Service
As Scotland’s national organisation for the improvement of local government, IS manages the Scottish community councils project on behalf of the Scottish Government and provides ‘information, support and resources for Scotland’s 1,200 community councils and the 10,000+ volunteers who serve as community councillors’.
To find out more about the Scottish community council project, LGIU Scotland spoke with Brian Davey.
In the Scottish Community Development Centre 2019 report, how would you describe this impact on CC?
Powers and resources for community councils were something we were aware of, but Democracy Matters conversations from the Scottish Government really drive home the Improvement Service’s work on highlighting the good work in communities.
What case studies and best practices from CC do you wish were more widely known?
There are tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of good news stories on top of the important work on the ground like local history projects, heritage events and restoring monuments, and flower beds – the general things community councils are involved in. We know that there is not a lot of funding available, as admin grants can vary across Scotland, and community councils have taken it upon themselves. For example, the Joint Forum of Community Councils in West Lothian has organised and is currently publicising a national conference for June 10th to debate taking community councils forward and produced a Blueprint for Future community councils calling for more responsibility and powers to be devolved to communities.
And, there is a wealth of case studies and learnings from community councils highlighted by the Improvement Service and the Scottish Community Councils’ website. For instance, Cambuslang Community Council found a way to get funding for a banking hub run jointly by the major banks and the Post Office. While Merchant City and Trongate Community Council set up a grant-giving scheme which has been funded by donations from production companies filming in the area over the last couple of years.
Overall, the Improvement Service raises awareness all the time via its Scottish Community Council website and social media channels. At the moment, Local Place Plans offer a means for community councils to get involved. Community Map Scotland is a digital mapping tool that supports them. It is used by Parish Councils in England and is available for free for a year so they can map out and develop local place plans for their communities. For more, check out the community council’s new hub containing Cost of Living Case Studies featuring important work from Barra’s island communities and how the Ferintosh Community Bus tackles transport deprivation.
Going forward, how is IS looking to support community councils?
At the IS, we are trying to work in partnership to repurpose national organisation resources for a community council audience. For example, during the pandemic, we reached out to the Scottish Tech Army, who started during covid as furloughed IT staff to help communities. They produced community council websites and online infrastructure so community councils could upload minutes and resources.
During the pandemic, many community councils weren’t able to meet face-to-face and were struggling with things like Teams, Zoom and Google Meet. To try to find out who could help, we reached out to Open University in Scotland, who in February 2022 created a new portal to upskill and reskill Community Councils. We continued this work with training webinars for community councils and by partnering with SusTrans Scotland and SCDC for webinars on climate, active travel and community engagement.
In terms of being representative of the communities, we’ll be speaking to youth organisations about encouraging and rewarding young people volunteering for community councils. We are exploring hosting webinars with ElectHer to promote women getting involved in local government and getting them interested in community councils in the first instance. We are also keen to work with organisations that support disabled people to promote and encourage their involvement with community councils.
How do you view the role of community councils in terms of the wider issue of democratic renewal?
If you are interested in your communities, getting involved in community council is a tried and tested approach. And if you are interested in politics, the first place to start is on the ground. The most local pillar of democracy is your community council, but again, it is about making people aware of this. With Community councils, it does not cost you anything to stand. Many people get involved because there is an issue affecting them at a local level. If anyone was interested in a career in politics community councils are an important first step but many people choose to remain at the community level without political involvement and that’s fine too. There is a lot happening in terms of community councils, which we see, but the issue is how we can further support and develop community councils.
Community councils are a proud asset in Scotland’s system of governance. While Wales has over 800 community councils and England have a tier of Parish Councils, in Northern Ireland, there has never been an equivalent of the directly elected community council, and in the rest of Ireland, the Local Government Reform Act 2014 recently abolished all town councils. And, at a time when governance is increasingly focused on community engagement buy-in for issues such as climate change, and when trust in democratic institutions is on the decline, the role of community councils in Scotland appears more important than ever. So, for those interested in local democracy in Scotland, May 23rd Scottish Parliament meeting on community councils offer an important insight into the most local tier of elected representation.