Monday, February 17, 2014

Green Campaigner Andy Wightman: – “let’s forget about Community Councils, they’re done, they’re finished”

Last Thursday  the Scottish Green Party launched their document “Renewing Local Democracy in Scotland” in Nairn at an event held in the Community Centre. In the question and answer session after the introduction by leading figures in the Scottish Greens (video here) there was a slight difference of opinion between Martha Wardrop, a Glasgow Councillor, and author and land rights campaigner Andy Wightman over the role of community councils in a potential new landscape of local democracy in Scotland.  

Many Gurnites, especially the Community Councils’ ‘usual suspects’ and many of the NICE rank and file, often exercise their thoughts on how more democracy could be restored to Nairn and, as we surmised in a pervious article, much of what the Scottish Greens outlined in the Nairn Community Centre last week would probably have been refreshing to those in the area who wish to see great changes in the way ‘local’ government is organised. Interesting then perhaps to focus on some of what was said by the Greens about Community Councils. 

Martha said: “I think it would be important to hear the views of Community Councils as part of this debate because we wouldn’t want to disenfranchise community councillors. They have an important role at the moment and many of them want to have resources to make decisions about roads, lighting, street cleansing, general park maintenance arrangements, the local High Streets. We need to take account of existing boundaries that have been established for community councils in this and whether they would be workable within the arrangement.”

Andy then said: “Let’s be clear the Green Party has its policy and views on Community Councils. In the report I argue let’s forget about Community Councils, they’re done, they’re finished. There’s an advantage of starting with that as your base and building up. The problem there is a political one. If you have to drag powers out of existing ones down to that then that’s a hard claw of a job. Also they do not have a great name, reputation, in some places they are doing fantastic work, in a lot of Scotland they are doing mediocre work. The notion that you are going to sell a new democracy on the basis of more power to Community Councils was in my view, because I wrote the report – kind of sends the wrong political message and the other thing is that in an historical context Community Councils were given as a sop in 1973. The towns were very angry that their councils were going. They wanted to keep their land, their wanted to keep their Common Good assets – they weren’t allowed to do that so they just drafted a few clauses and said: “We’ll take account of your interests. […] And then people said we still want a voice in this new district and regional authority. “We’ll give you a Community Council” and then they said well do they have any powers and “We’ll consult you”. So the very genesis of this thing was a sop.”

Previous article, including video, of the Scottish Greens high heid yins in Nairn here


local loon said...

It's a tough message..... but Andy Wightman is right, and he makes a very good point.

The truth is that CCs have no policy-responsibility, no power, and no resources beyond a grant for postage and photocopying. CC members are unpaid amateurs with varying levels of expertise and knowledge. CCs can be consulted. They can make representations. They can relay local views to the elected and paid Councillors. Whether this has any effect depends on the coherence of their views, the level of their expertise, and the extent to which their local Council is willing to listen.

An effective and enlightened local Council can, and should, pay heed to and be influenced by, CCs. But they are not obliged to do so. Where a Council operates or is divided on party-political lines, or where it has its own agenda, it is free to ignore CC input. Sadly, that seems too often to be the case in Highland and in Nairn. As a result, local views are ignored, brushed aside, or - occasionally, as over Sandown and Nairn South - come back to bite the local authority.

Many in Nairn look to the CCs to represent their views or fight their corner either because elected members are not interested or not engaged, or because Council officials and agencies remote from the local scene take unwelcome decisions and impose policies and plans despite local opposition. People look to CCs because they feel there is nothing else which reflects local interests or views.

The solution is not to task CCs, made up of volunteers, to start delivering local services and managing projects and budgets. They are not equipped to do so.

Nor is the answer in the current SNP wheeze of Local Area Committees. This is no more than expensive gesture-politics: paying selected Councillors lots more money to meet occasionally and discuss and rubber-stamp policies and actions already decided by officials in Inverness.

The answer is real devolution and the re-establishment of local(Burgh or District) authority and decision-making. There are plenty of models and examples - in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe - of locally-elected, locally-accountable local authorities with real power and real budgets and real responsibility.

Wightman is right. We must get away from the pretence and the illusion that CCs are capable of making up for the failure of existing (regional) local authority structures.

The system needs proper structural reform and genuine devolution and democracy. The current national government of Scotland already has the power to implement this, and should be addressing it as a much higher priority than the current obsession with a divorce from Westminster.

kaiach said...

Well said that man, at last some people is begining to talk sense, and getting to the heart to the problem