Community Councils at 50 – the forgotten front-line of democracy?

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Fifty years ago, the Local Government (Scotland) Act created community councils in order to provide a ‘bridge’ between communities and local authorities. In May 2023, the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee held an evidence session to both celebrate this milestone and to hear from a range of community councils about what difference they make in their communities.  Jackie Weaver, one of the online stars who emerged during the pandemic, was there to tell the Committee about the stark contrast between community councils in Scotland and the powers that parish and town councils have in England.

This blog describes some of the key issues that community councils face 50 years on, and the opportunities that the Committee heard there might be to transform them.

What are Community Councils?

There are an estimated 1,200 active community councils in Scotland. Community Councillors are independent volunteers (not representatives of political parties), and should be elected by their communities, although elections are rarely contested due to a lack of candidates. Community councils must be consulted by local authorities on planning applications, certain licence applications, and on changes to the use of ‘common good’ property and assets. Quite often community councils will be involved in a range of local community activities, and some community councils are also partners in community planning (which sees organisations in local authority areas collaborating to provide key services and support).

Community councils are described by the Scottish Government as being the most local tier of statutory representation in Scotland. For What Works Scotland, community councils have the potential to be a crucial component of community empowerment and democratic renewal. But in reality, they often struggle to attract members and local interest, raising questions about how effective they can be. The legislation that founded community councils remains unaltered in 50 years, despite significant other changes in local democracy, such as the removal of regional and district councils, and the creation of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

Local authorities must provide some support to the community councils in their area – they are required to set up Community Council schemes, should have a liaison officer in place, and usually provide a small annual grant (typically around £500 to each community council) to cover administrative costs. Community councils can also apply to a range of funding sources which help community projects, such as the National Lottery or Princes Trust. Information, support and resources for community councils are provided by the Improvement Service’s Scottish Community Councils Project, which is funded by the Scottish Government.

What do community councils do?

Community councils are unincorporated bodies and have no powers to borrow (or raise) money or to easily own assets.  They have a statutory right to exist, but very few powers, and the issues that they do have a role in – like the local planning process – simply require local authorities to consult with them.

Community councils are sometimes criticised for not truly representing the communities they support.  Councillors carry out their duties unpaid, and so invariably they tend to be people who have enough resources and time to be able to contribute.

Despite these barriers, many community councils are engaged in a wide range of activities from fundraising to environmental projects, leading or supporting participatory budgeting, campaigning on local issues, organising community events and building relationships with a range of local people and organisations from different sectors. The Improvement Service’s Community Council website describes community councils as facilitating a wide range of activities which promote the wellbeing of their communities:

“They bring local people together to help make things happen, and many community councils protect and promote the identity of their community. They advise, petition, influence and advocate numerous causes and cases of concern on behalf of local communities.”

Clearly this flexibility is one of their strengths, but it also means there’s a very patchy landscape across the 1,200 community councils.

Meanwhile in England…

Parish and town councils are the most local tier of local government in England and they cover around 40% of the population. Jackie Weaver told the Committee about the significant differences with the position in Scotland – such as having powers to raise taxes, to borrow money, to employ staff, to own and manage assets and funds, and to give grants to local bodies (these issues are also explored in a 2021 House of Commons Library briefing). In Jackie Weaver’s view, Scotland’s community councils are, in contrast, “kept in line” and hampered by not having such powers.  

Other differences between the English and Scottish systems include the lack of a national representative body which can advocate on behalf of community councils in Scotland.  In England, a national association exists which is funded by its members, and there is a full network of regional associations such as Jackie Weaver’s Cheshire Association of Local Councils.  These can act as intermediaries between parish councils and the equivalent of local authorities.

Parish councils in England are also supported by a network of professional paid clerks who underpin the work that they do – and are a requirement if a parish council wants to exercise its rights to borrow money.

Jackie Weaver told the Committee how parish councils are increasingly filling the gap caused by diminishing resources available to local authorities in England.  As well as their tax-raising and borrowing powers – which mean they can carry out infrastructure projects – there are examples too of successful crowdfunding for local projects, demonstrating community support and buy-in.

What could be done differently in Scotland – reform or rebuild?

The Committee heard the case for either reforming or rebuilding community councils in Scotland. There have been a number of pieces of work and research over the years which have explored how community councils are functioning, and which all make the case for changes to be made. For example, recommendations from a short-life working group established by the Scottish Government in 2011 made the case that community councils could be ideally placed to decide how specific local budgets are spent in their communities, and that they should have more responsibilities and influence.  And in 2019 What Works Scotland and the Scottish Community Development Centre conducted a project looking at how community councils can contribute to democratic renewal in Scotland, concluding that significant reform is needed.

The West Lothian Forum of Community Councils has recently published its ‘Blueprint for Community Councils’ which makes a series of recommendations, including calls for more responsibility to be devolved to communities and more powers over matters such as planning, licensing, grants to local organisations, town centre or village management, involvement in community wealth building, local development plans, etc. They would like community councils to have more budgets, possibly employ staff and have closer relationships with local authorities.

With the Scottish Government and COSLA’s current joint work to develop a New Deal for local government, conclude a long-awaited Local Governance Review, and with proposals for a Local Democracy Bill and Community Wealth Building Bill, this could be an opportunity for community councils to be looked at afresh as part of local democracy.

Key questions to be considered include how they can be supported to be fully representative of their communities, empowered to make a positive impact, and enabled to continue their work at a time when local authorities face significant challenges.

Greig Liddell, Senior Researcher, Financial Scrutiny Unit and Katherine Byrne, Assistant Clerk, Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee