It’s always affirming to learn of fresh research into our field. So I was very excited to receive Katrin Prager‘s and Kirsty Holstead‘s Community Councils in Aberdeenshire: Achievements and Challenges.
This report, published by the James Hutton Institute introduces the notions of ‘quiet’ and ‘energetic’ CCs, one distinction being that quiet CCs focus on very local issues such as dog-fouling while energetic CCs may organise large-scale events or manage local facilities. (There is no hard rule: quiet CCs may be involved with ‘energetic’ activities via community associations, Development Trusts etc.)
The value of CCs in ‘fostering community spirit and cohesion, a sense of pride, and general well-being of residents’ is acknowledged, as is that of behind-the-scenes work on Local Development Plans and similar. However, CCs may be under-recognised because they do not publicise their work, their actions take time to achieve results, there is competition for attention with other community groups undertaking more visible activities, and lack of money.
The challenges CCs face include
- recruitment of members and office-bearers, especially 20- to 40-year-olds.
There is a wide range of reasons for people not joining CCs, going beyond the hackneyed ‘apathy’: the demands of other community activities, families, careers, commuting, issues with CCs and housing circumstances. Further, being a CC office-bearer is no small task.
- building skills
including lack of awareness of training offered by Aberdeenshire Council. [It is preparing a wide range of training materials, which may become available on the national CC website.]
- financial support
Some CC members see annual LA grants as tokenistic but others find them sufficient. Some CCs raise their own funds for local events. Some respondents wish for funds to enable management of community services.
- decision-making powers
There is disagreement over whether CCs should have more decision-making powers.
CC members may also be members of Development Trusts, village hall committees etc, helping to create ‘team efforts’ around local issues. Engagement with CCs’ communities includes encounters with residents (despite sparse public attendance at CC meetings), publishing in newspapers, digital means, and public meetings about specific issues.
Prager and Holstead’s final consideration is what CCs need to empower communities. In line with Oliver Escobar, they note that requirements will vary from community to community. They recommend ranges of actions for individuals, communities, LAs and the Scottish Government.
I think that this report is a valuable addition to the literature on Community Councils. While it is based on Aberdeenshire CCs, many of the issues are familiar from our encounters with CCs across Scotland. However, the authors approach the issues from a refreshing viewpoint and suggest new, practical ways to improve Scotland’s hyperlocal democracy. Speaking personally, it’s great to learn of other members of the community of interest around Community Councils: without CCs, Scotland could be one of the least democratic nations in Europe.
Bort, E., Mcalpine, R., & Morgan, G. (2012). The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland. Retrieved from http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/The-Silent-Crisis1.pdf
Escobar, O. (2014). Strengthening local democracy in Scotland: the Community Councils’ perspective. Report from a participative forum with Community Councillors facilitated by the Academy of Government to inform COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, University of Edinburgh. http://www.localdemocracy.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Report-Community-Councils-Forum-for-COSLA-Commission-2014.pdf
Prager, K. and Holstead, K.L. (2015). Community councils in Aberdeenshire, Scotland: Achievements and challenges. James Hutton Institute