The first shall be last, and the last shall be first?

My better half pointed out recently that I described the Scottish Government as the top/first level, and Community Councils as the bottom/third level. This is interesting for two reasons:

  • it omits the UK government entirely
  • I automatically relegate hyperlocal democracy to third place.

I’m not so sure that I like the second point. While I believe that most CCs are not currently ready to take on service delivery, and the public scrutiny that should entail, I don’t believe this means they can’t evolve to do this.

Further, I’m a believer in decisions and actions being taken at the appropriate level. That’s roughly subsidiarity. Of course this opens the door to endless arguments about what is appropriate. My take on this is to look at the scale or geography: if the issue is a motorway that crosses several local government areas, then central government takes the decisions. If the issue is domestic waste collection, then the LA (or government level that implements waste collection) takes the decisions. If the issue is more local, then hyperlocal government takes the decisions.

But I hope that such arguments can be cut short by the levels of government acting in partnership. So central government would consult (now there’s a loaded word) on motorways with the local governments, and they in turn would consult with hyperlocal government. For refuse collection, local government would consult with hyperlocal government and with residents of individual streets on whether to have communal bins, gull-proof bags, how often to collect domestic waste, etc. (This is an issue that’s come up in central Edinburgh, so it’s on my mind.)

I recognise that such partnership is often conspicuously absent: many community councils simply do not trust their LAs, and I’ve heard many stories of LAs simply ignoring their CCs’ informed opinions. However, if we want government of the people by the people for the people, then we do need to develop this partnership. For me, a big step will be when community-level bodies are fully represented on all community planning partnerships. (About a year ago, I found that only a few CPPS had community council representation at board level. This situation may have changed.)

I think that this partnership also requires opening up government, making it more transparent so that people can trust it because they know what’s going on and can be involved in decision-making. (This is on my mind just now because I’ve just come out of a meeting around creating a Scottish open government action plan.) While most of the people at this meeting were from Scottish Government and bodies covering all of Scotland, open-ness and transparency at Holyrood and Westminster will mean little if the same doesn’t apply at other levels.

After all, it’s currently LAs that empty our bins, fix (or don’t fix) our streets, create local development plans etc, not Holyrood or Westminster. Our community councils supposedly represent us at a more granular level. But if they don’t say who they are, what they do, and publish their decisions within a few days of them being made, then they fail to be open.

When we surveyed CCs in 2014, we found that about 70 didn’t state who the CC members are. That’s poor – it should be like this, where you can see who the Bridge of Allan CC members are and what ‘qualifies’ them to be local representatives.

In my work as a community council minute-taker and web-weaver, I try to publish minutes within a week of the meeting. However, this is often stymied by having a day-job, and waiting on feedback from office-bearers on drafts. Even worse, many CCs don’t publish minutes until they’ve been approved at the next meeting. So their information isn’t made public until a month later, by which time it’s gone stale.

In summary, I think we need professionalism at hyperlocal government level, open-ness and transparency at every level of government, and partnership between these levels all through. After all, the only reason for governments is to do things for their citizens. If they don’t do that, they are just robber-barons.

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