In responding to the request for ‘specific areas of the Scheme that you felt needed change’, the principal concerns of Crail Community Council relate to:
- The nature and purposes of Community Councils.
- The balance of decisional power between Fife Council, Fife Council Officers and Community Councils.
- The failure to implement fully the terms of the Local Government Act (Scotland) 1973.
- Control over local Common Good Funds.
- Planning Issues.
Our concerns have been informed by recent Scottish Government reports emphasising the need to increase the role of Communities as essential partners in local policy making, and the Scottish Community Development Centre Report ‘Strengthening Community Councils’.
The following explores some of the issues we feel are important.
- The nature and purposes of Community Councils
The Fife Council scheme for the establishment of Community Councils says the following : The general purpose of a Community Council shall be 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.
The experience of Crail Community Council is that it can successfully access and articulate the views of its local community and can express them in coherent and meaningful ways. The catchment area of Crail Community Council is a relatively discrete and self-contained, and therefore it is probably easier to access and represent community views than it might be in a more complex urban environment. This might suggest that there needs to be a more nuanced approach to the roles of Community Councils in this regard.
The greatest weakness in the present system, in our view, is that having accessed and formulated opinion, responsibility for the follow on from that (action in the interest of the community to redress issues, and accountability for that action) does not lie with the Community Council and instead lies exclusively with Fife Council officials. These officials are responsible not to the Community Council (the source of complaints, actions, etc. and the acknowledged principle point of access to communities) but to Fife Councillors, and that at times may even be retrospective. Local experience of the effectiveness of this is poor, in terms of quality of work, clarity of decisional processes and value for money. Experience suggests that local democratic control and accountability has been sacrificed for administrative convenience.
This illustrates in our view one of a number of fundamental weaknesses with the present system. The number of Community Councils covered by the 3 Fife County Council Councillors (relevant to Crail) are too many to enable effective local engagement with all areas, and therefore to ensure accountability (indeed not all areas have Community Councils). Matters that most concern local residents are not great issues of policy, but the things that effect day to day community life – for example the state of the roads, the poor maintenance of local authority property, the provision of effective recycling and litter disposal, the ineffective enforcement of planning decisions, the co-ordination of council services. Failure to ensure direct democratic input into decisions related to these kinds of issues derived from local engagement through the Community Council, particularly in times of reduced resources, ensures dissatisfaction with both the service provider and the democratic system behind it, and reduces the capacity for cost effective intervention.
- The balance of decisional power between Fife Council, Fife Council Officers and Community Councils
Extending the above argument further, the balance of power between the Fife County Councillors (and the North East Fife Area committee) and Community Councils is distorted away from Community Councils. This is exacerbated by the practise of officer led decisions receiving retrospective approval from elected bodies. Not only does this diminish democratic accountability, experience suggests it is also not cost effective in terms of local value for money (as distinct from meeting administrative agendas of Fife Council).
The Community Councils are described as the lowest level of local democracy in Scotland. If the reference to ‘democracy’ is to mean anything, then accountability for deficiencies in local services accessed through Community Councils has to lie at that level, not elsewhere. What is often taken to be illustrative of the Democratic Deficit in Scotland are failures to fill community council seats resulting in a major weakness at this lowest level of democratic representation. It is our view that the lack of effective capacity to ensure accountability to Community Councils goes a long way to explaining the reluctance of potential Community Councillors to engage with the process – a common comments is ‘why bother – you are not listened to by distant council officials and you can’t change anything anyway’. Even in communities where there is an active community council (like Crail) there is huge frustration at how Community Council powers are advisory, are mediated by county councillors and are subject to unelected local authority officials taking decisions without consultation.
It may well be that Fife Council is not an effective administrative unit, and is far too large and distant from the communities it claims to represent; but this can be remedied to some extent by extending power and accountability to Community Councils as the most meaningful layer of local democracy. Extended and more effective accountability will improve efficiency and the value for money communities receive for their tax burden.
A partial way of addressing some of these problems may well be that some services should be provided and controlled directly at the Community Council level. This would imply transfer of central funds to the Community Council, and also a relaxation on the constraints on a Community Council making contractual commitments extending beyond 6 months. That also implies a local administrative structure. Experience in rural areas in other European countries suggests this is effective and provides cost benefits. We recognise that this may not always be the case, particularly in urban areas, and this may suggest different strategies for empowering Community Councils in different kind of areas.
- The failure to implement fully the terms of the Local Government Act (Scotland) 1973
The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 makes enabling provision at a variety of levels for resources to be allocated directly at Community Council level. For example C65 Part IV Section 55 says ‘….may, at the request of such community councils, provide them with staff, services, accommodation, furniture, vehicles and equipment, on such terms as to payment or otherwise as may be agreed between the councils concerned’ . This seems to envisage a much more equitable treatment of Community Councils than that actually provided in the Fife Council scheme, and clearly if implemented would develop a much more responsive local network of service provision. In the case of Crail, for example, this might be supplemented by partial funding from the Crail Common Good fund.
- Control over local Common Good Funds
There is strong local feeling about the way in which changes to the distribution and approval of expenditure of Crail Common Good Fund have been implemented, particularly in relation to lack of prior consultation and approval of expenditure. As part of a process of change, Crail Community Council strongly feel that control over the revenue from Crail Common Good Fund, the disposal of any assets, and the activity of Crail Settlement Trust should be brought back to Crail Community Council. In the context of 3. above, this may well provide a suitable element of a partial funding transfer to enable the more local control envisaged in the 1973 Act. The lack of direct accountability, failures in communication and decisions taken without adequate consultation around the Common Good funds bring the process into disrepute, and in some quarters gives rise to suspicions of partiality. Maintaining the health of democratic structures requires this to be addressed.
- Planning Issues
A further area of concern relates to Consultation on Planning issues. The period for consultation when a Community Council is not a statutory consultee is too short and does not fit with the monthly meeting schedule. If the point of Community Councils being involved in Planning matters is to ensure consultation, then the time period has to be adjusted to enable planning matters to be considered at public meetings. A further related issue is that Crail, having recently completed its Charrette, has now a well-developed future development plan that has drawn on sophisticated expert advice and public consultations. Planning decision structures need to be responsive to this.