I was speaking at a great event on local democracy at Kirriemuir last night during which local SNP MSP Graeme said a fairly astonishing thing. He seemed to suggest the Scottish Government is going to vet the suitability of candidates for community councils because some are unfit for office. When I challenged him on this he said this request had actually come from community councils. I hope I got this wrong – if not, this is outrageous. Community councils have been all but hobbled since they were set up as ineffective, toothless, talking-shops in 1973 with an average budget of £400 per annum to be spent on stationery. Elections don’t have to happen because there is no upper limit on size and due to the powerless nature of their statutory functions (none) relatively few folk are attracted to stand anyway. This summer Dumfries and Galloway simply dissolved 38 of its 91 community councils. The SNP aren’t responsible for how community councils were initially set up but they certainly are responsible for NOT improving matters via the Community Empowerment Act (CEA) 2015 which neither gave community councils a proper role in our governance system nor whacked them on the heid to put them out of their misery.
As convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee Graeme Dey spent some time debating the CEA, so he must know why the SNP saw fit to let community councils limp on. Don’t get me wrong – I’m criticizing the structure, not the folk. Most community councils attract earnest, well meaning, hard-working people who in any other country would be councillors in a genuinely local and powerful town or island council. Of course there are gatekeepers, bampots, self-important busybodies and a very few undesirable folk – all of whom would be weeded out if toothless community councils were abolished and replaced with real local councils invigorated by proper ELECTIONS, real POWER and INCOME derived from taxes raised directly from local people instead of extracted from a grudging Holyrood. In other words, the standard of candidate (if it really is an issue) will be improved by giving Scotland a NORMAL system of local democracy as exists all over Europe. Here large, distant, bureaucratic regional-sized councils are allowed to masquerade as local government. The most depressing moment of the night was hearing valiant veteran Independent Councillor Vivian Dance say she felt ashamed to say she is a member of Argyll and Bute Council – so completely has their credibility been sunk by their actions over Castle Toward and trying to victimize and intimidate Vivien’s colleague Councillor Mike Breslin through a case thrown out yesterday by the Standards Commission. These councillors – and many others across Scotland – are doing their darndest to make a broken system of over-large, topdown “local” democracy work – but it can’t work. The reason the Scottish Government can propose bypassing councils in so many policy areas from police and education to childcare, is that our current councils are completely unloved. Only 38 per cent of Scots turned out to vote in local elections last time around and hardly anyone knows their councillor – but that’s been read by politicians of all parties (save the Greens) as a sign that formal, representative local democracy simply doesn’t matter or can’t be made to work. Now a host of informal arrangements look set to be formed between the Scottish Government and unsupported community groups instead. As those who ken me will know – I’m all for community control. But why does it have to happen outwith and despite the official structures? In any other northern democracy the folk behind community land buyouts or asset transfers or voluntary services would BE councilors in a truly local council – not the folk pushing against the faceless authority of some distant HQ.
The structure of local democracy in Scotland is broken – even the umbrella body representing councils (COSLA) has said so – and yet the Scottish Government’s response to date has been a detail-free promise by John Swinney at last week’s SNP conference promising more power for communities. But there’s to be NO change to the powerless nature of community councils. I hope someone can reassure me the Scottish Government has no plans to vet candidates from a different tier of government – or indeed from any tier. And the sooner we hear John Swinney announce a bold devolution of power to truly local councils – the better.