The Scottish Community Alliance highlighted this week recent research carried out by the BBC on Scotland’s Community Councils. First established in 1973, they were set up to be locally based structures after local government re-organisation had removed the two tier system of district and burgh councils. Community Councils have a statutory role in planning, licensing and other areas. The BBC reported that many community councils are currently struggling to fulfil their remit: around a fifth of the 1,514 councils are not operating at all. A lack of electoral interest means 9 out of 10 councils are formed without elections and concern is being expressed over whether they are becoming undemocratic. The Scottish Government has announced that a working group is to be set up to look at the future of community councils.
Edinburgh comes out of the research relatively well, with all 43 of its councils categorised as active. All are categorised as being unelected due to not enough people standing. However, community councillors would like more people to be involved in their local community councils and are concerned that local communities do not engage with community council activity or participate enough in local decision making. Most are only too aware that if they do not attract new people into the process that community councils may cease to exist. One suggestion was that a sense of community was needed for a community council to flourish. No-one seems entirely sure what to do about the current sliding demise of the community council structure and what a possible replacement might look like.
In considering the creation of successful local democratic structures, it is worth reflecting on the formation of the Wester Hailes Representative Council. Crucially it evolved within the community out of a series of democratic structures. Back in the mid 1970s, the Wester Hailes Association of Tenants was formed along with smaller tenant groups such as the Westburn Action Group and the Clovenstone Association of Tenants. The Social and Community Development Programme was implemented in Wester Hailes in 1975, bringing resources to the area. The SCDP established a Wester Hailes Local Advisory Committee made up of representatives of the tenant groups and other interested parties. In 1978 Urban Aid arrived and a new body, the Wester Hailes Advisory Committee was set up, consisting of two members from each of the six recognised tenants’ groups. At the beginning of 1980, this was succeeded by the Wester Hailes Urban Regeneration Programme Advisory Committee.
The list of committees may seem convoluted but what it shows is the gradual development of experience in local representative structures and the expectation the local community had in what should be in place. An external evaluation of the SCDP stated that the
“experience of defining and communicating local problems and their solutions is furthest advanced in Wester Hailes”.
The report concluded that what was happening was a shift from representative to participatory democracy.
People did not simply vote- they had their say as well.
The formation of the Rep Council was able to build on this and to benefit from the number of locally based associations that had developed over the years as part of this process. The first meeting was attended by Tenants of Murrayburn, Hailesland Tenants Association, Unemployed Workers Centre, Wester Hailes Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Acorn Club, District Councillor, Youth Programme, Parents’ Group, WHEC, Clovenstone Community Centre, Calder Adventure Group, Play Forum, Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Programme, and the Community Workshop.
The Sentinel featured the Rep Council in 1984, describing its set up and its two way process with representatives taking local concerns to the Rep meetings and then feeding back to their groups what has been discussed. The Rep Council was therefore a structure developed to be specific to its community’s situation, built on the experience of previous structures and with two way representation at the heart of its remit.
Wester Hailes Community Council formed in 2009 is one of the newest community councils in Edinburgh. It represents residents of Murrayburn, Clovenstone, Westburn, Dumbryden, Calders, Hailesland and all other areas in Wester Hailes. Its meetings (held in public) are every six weeks at the Wester Hailes Library. You can find out more about the Wester Hailes Community Council by clicking here.