Local democracy is undermined by lack of cash from councils
By Alison Tibbitt, investigative reporter
A survey of the funding of every community council in Scotland has sparked claims that the bodies are being systematically undermined by a lack of support from local authorities.
West Dunbartonshire Council for example allocates only a miserable 27 pence per head of the population while Argyll and Bute Council’s contribution is 36 per head.
In Dundee, the local authority that spends the least on local democracy, the survey reveals that just one penny per person per year is spent on helping community councils. Elsewhere, the vast majority of councils spend less than 20p per person per year, with rural local authorities tending to invest more.
Only the island councils of Orkney and Shetland support their local community councils with more than £1 per person per year.
The figures were compiled by Portobello community councillor Lee Kindness, from multiple freedom of information requests. He, like virtually all community councillors in Scotland, is a volunteer.
He told The Ferret investigative bureau that Portobello Community Council is funded by a grant of £900 per year from the City of Edinburgh Council, but that this does not cover the regular outgoings of the community council.
Costs included hall rental, consultation software, insurance and registration fees with bodies such as the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, which all community councils must have, he said. “There is a structural deficit of £140 per year, and only a generous donation from a local business has kept the community council solvent.”
He pointed out the council was spending less than a penny per month to hear views from local people, and that this level of funding made it difficult for the community council to fulfil its statutory role. This is to “ascertain, co-ordinate and express to the local authority for its area… the views of the community which it represents.”
He had uncovered huge disparities in local democracy spending across Scotland, he argued. “A community council in Dundee should be equally empowered to carry out its statutory duty as one one in the Shetland Isles.”
Council spending per person on community councils
|Local Authority||Per Capita Spend|
|Na h-Eileanan Siar||£0.50|
|Argyll and Bute||£0.36|
|Dumfries and Galloway||£0.33|
|Perth and Kinross||£0.08|
|City of Edinburgh||£0.07|
There is currently no national body that represents community councils in Scotland. But the research undertaken by Kindness has prompted further calls for reform from other campaign groups.
Clare Symonds, Chair of Planning Democracy said that she found that community councillors felt a huge pressure to represent their communities, but often felt they were simply not resourced to undertake the work that was needed to adequately represent local views when major planning applications were proposed.
“In the case of complex planning applications, it may be impractical for community councils to perform a valid consultation, collate the feedback and lodge a meaningful representation within the timescales allowed,” she said.
A new planning bill currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament includes proposals that community councils could play a role in developing “local place plans” to guide development in their area.
But Planning Democracy has pointed out to MSPs that there are no proposals to provide guaranteed additional resources to community councils to carry out this work in the planned new system.
In England, where local authorities are already encouraged to work with local communities to develop similar “neighbourhood plans,” councils are given £20,000 to fund the development work. In some cases, this work has cost more than £100,000 per plan, experts working with Planning Democracy have said.
Alexandra Ruswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, said the underfunding of local democratic institutions was part of a UK-wide trend. In her view, the role of community councils throughout Scotland should be further codified into law so that local democracy was not subject to “the whims of the government of the day.”
“It would be a mistake to look at what has been exposed about community councils in isolation. Far from being an isolated incident, this is part of a wider trend,” she said.
“All across the UK we are seeing a systematic diminution of local democracy. Democratic institutions that should enable people to have power over what happens in their communities are being eroded. We need to wake up to the fact that what community councils in Scotland are facing is a systemic problem, and tinkering with a system that is fundamentally broken won’t solve the issue.”
Angus Hardie, of the Scottish Communities Alliance, argued that the “under-funded, under-powered” nature of community councils was a perennial complaint.
“The real question to be asked is not what they they need, in terms of resources, to carry out their current statutory duties, which are pretty minimal as things stand, but what might they do in the future?” he said.
“Can we find a hybrid form of democratic innovation that sits between communities and local authorities and could that involve community councils amongst others?”
These questions may be considered by MSPs at Holyrood as part of a proposed new local governance review and local democracy bill. In advance of the debate, the Scottish Government is currently holding a public consultation called democracy matters.
Back in Portobello, Kindness hopes his research will inform the discussion about how community councils should be resourced. “To truly learn about what a community feels about issues requires the tools to engage with people,” he said. “And as local government has adapted to the changes due to the internet, so too must community councils.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Local authorities are responsible for establishing community councils and for outlining arrangements including elections, meetings, boundaries and finance. Along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), we are committed to exploring how more decisions affecting people’s lives can be taken locally.
She added: “The democracy matters consultation is currently underway and we would welcome the views of community councils. Funds from the Voluntary Action Fund are also available to help community groups get involved.”
A Dundee City Council spokesperson said: “The council regularly consults with community councils, providing presentations and support to enable them to respond to consultations. We are committed to supporting our communities to do things for themselves, and to make their voices heard in the planning and delivery of services.
“An initial annual administrative grant is provided to community councils to assist with the operating costs. The grant is fixed at a minimum rate of £330 with an additional minimal 1.2p per head of population. Thereafter, each community council has the power to secure additional resources for schemes, projects and all other purposes consistent with its functions.”
A spokesperson for COSLA said that decisions on funding for community councils “are rightly and properly a matter for local determination.”