This document has been written for Dumfries and Galloway Council (DGC) who are currently amending their ‘Scheme’ following the dissolution of many of their Community Councils in 2016, and Scottish Rural Action’s (SRA) Local Democracy and Governance working group.
In Scotland each Local Authority (LA) is required to produce a ‘Scheme’ of Establishment for its Community Councils. Originally a national ‘Scheme’ was created jointly in 2009 by The Scottish Government, The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) and the Association of Scottish Community Councils (ASCC). The latter dissolved itself in 2011 leaving Scottish CCs with no independent national voice.
At this point all Councils in Scotland had the same Scheme, however since then individual LA’s subsequent amendments mean that there are now significant ‘Scheme’ variations across Scotland. Some of the changes have resulted in disturbing inconsistencies, like access to Postal Voting at Elections, which could be seen as discriminatory against the lesser mobile.
There are also different methods by which LA’s deal with enforcement of their Schemes: some are light handed; others have a formal process. DGC’s current Scheme is poorly worded and it ended up having to dissolve nearly half (42) of its Community Councils in 2016 when it faced an unforeseen legal challenge.
In 1996 ministerial oversight for Community Councils was removed from the Secretary of State for Scotland, without putting in place any other independent process for dealing with disputes which might subsequently occur between Community Council’s and their LA’s, making them effectively judge and jury.
Whilst the original ‘Scheme’ was pretty loose fitting, a one size fits all approach, subsequent amendments by LA’s have resulted in noticeably different Amended Schemes across Scotland, some still quite laissez faire, others more rigid, with little overall consistency.
Within the Amended Schemes, individual CC Constitutions exist, which should in theory offer the opportunity to adapt some of the rules to better meet local needs. One interesting matter is the number of Councillors per CC. Whilst most LAs adopt a formula based on local population size, West Lothian LA have adopted a more flexible approach allowing CCs to decide for themselves in their own Constitutions, provided it is between 4 and 18 (See Appendix 1).
Other oddities exist, such as the level of insurance and support provided by LA’s.
Some get a comprehensive package, which includes access to free independent legal advice. At the other end of the scale in DGC and elsewhere, an additional policy has to be arranged just to cover putting up a community Christmas tree at the CC’s own cost.
Such diverse variations as cited above in Amended Schemes, Constitutions and LA support across Scotland highlight the current ‘Postcode Lottery’ situation in local democracy and provision of support.
Funding is highly varied, from a few hundred pounds intended to cover annual administration costs to many thousands gained from Wind farm community benefit funds. Whilst some CCs struggle to provide basic local help, like snow clearing as part of their winter resilience programme or a public defibrillator, others are awash with cash they don’t know what to do with, which in itself creates problems.
Within Community Councils exists a huge variety of talent and experience, from retired professionals well versed in civic procedure to more ad-hoc local groups who may lack a formal administrative background but are just as keen to serve their community as best they can.
What appears to be currently lacking in Amended Schemes and Constitutions is understanding of the broad and differing nature of CCs and their need to be treated differently. Whilst for some, a more ordered approach is preferred, for others too much bureaucracy has a negative effect.
One possible solution would be to have a Scotland wide framework Scheme again which allowed within it room for individual CCs to tailor their Constitutions to meet local needs within accepted boundaries. Matters such as right of access to Postal Voting should be universal, whereas Councillor numbers could be more flexible to the community.
There is also the question of whether some LAs have the ability to properly manage the CCs in their charge. Budget cuts and staffing shortages put a strain on any organization and LAs have been under such pressure for a number of years.
Would CCs fare better under a national body to oversee them, a Government backed CC version of CoSLA? The matter is worthy of thought.
What is clear is that the current approach of managing CCs by LAs across Scotland is worryingly inconsistent. Whilst some communities fare well, others are left struggling, or don’t even have a CC at all.
A rethink on the subject is long overdue.