(It's really hard to find a photo which illustrates 'getting involved with community councils', so this is a photo from the Roma Day Parade in Govanhill Glasgow earlier this year.)
The independence referendum helped many women to find their voice, and to get involved in politics. Here Laura Stevens (on Twitter @writerlas) from East Renfrewshire WFI writes about Community Councils, and how she got involved.
On the 19th September I made a vow to myself to engage more with the issues on my doorstep. Attending a Community Council meeting seemed the best place to start. A Community Council (CC) is made up of residents in a council ward, who are elected as Community Councillors during local authority elections. Monthly meetings are held and are open to the public to attend and bring along any local issues affecting them. Councillors representing the ward also attend and can answer or investigate any queries raised that involved the local authority. Any planning permissions are brought before Community Councils to review and object to. They can also offer support to local campaigns, such as community land purchases. CCs are non-party political (the phrase “apolitical” is used in official documents but this acts to belittle what power CCs actually have) putting the needs of the community above any party membership or loyalty.
Scotland has one of the most unequal distributions of regional government in Europe. 32 local authorities cater for a population of just over 5 million. In Norway, there are over 434 local kommuners (effectively community councils) covering a population of just over 5 million. These bodies in Norway have more power than their Scottish counterparts by being able to gather government money to deal with local infrastructure issues such as street lighting, roadworks and social housing. The power given to these bodies is staggering when you consider that CCs in Scotland are given a paltry budget of £400 a year and are extremely restricted as to what they can spend the money on. One CC was prevented from using their budget to donate money to a local play group as it was not regarded as being “within the community’s interest.”
The average age of a Community Councillor is 60, which is not surprising. Although CC meetings only happen once a month, there can be extra work to follow up after meetings: typing up minutes, attending various committees, contacting members of the community about issues raised. Community Councillors are volunteers and receive no payment for the time they give to serving the community, barring necessary travel expenses or postage stamps. It can be a lot of ask of residents who work, are carers, have a family to raise and a host of other commitments as well. Many community meetings, which some Community Councillors are expected to attend, are held when the council staff are working the traditional hours of 9-5.
When I joined the Community Council, I was given an induction pack that included an 80 page document explaining what a CC was and what was expected of my role as a Community Councillor. The above statement regarding the average age of a Community Councillor was the first sentence I read in my induction pack. Later on, when I got to know more about the CC framework, it struck me that there should have been a note about gender.
My local branch, WFI East Ren, has been discussing the lack of representation of women within our local council. Surprisingly, I was the only member of our group who sat on a Community Council. A lot of women were local activists, and had been for some time, but there was a lack of knowledge on CCs and how they operated.
Perhaps this becomes less surprising when you break down East Renfrewshire Council Councillors by gender. Out of the current 20 councillors (soon to become 18, more on that later) only 4 of them are women. Let that sink in. That’s not even anywhere near close to 50:50 representation.
What’s concerning is that East Renfrewshire Council are moving towards making CCs even more inaccessible.
On 24th June East Renfrewshire Council (ERC) voted to bring in a new Scheme of Establishment for Community Councils (CC). This was in spite of the fact that the area’s CCs were already halfway through an elected term. ERC had been heavily criticised for rushing through this <link: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13415997.Authority_accused_of_incompetent_and_dictatorial_behaviour_over__anti_democratic__moves_to_disband_community_councils/ >Scheme in light of the Community Empowerment Bill. Nominations opened on the 12th August and closed at noon on Friday 11th September, with concerning results.
Over half of East Renfrewshire Community Councils ceased to exist at noon today (Friday 11th September). Only 5 community councils out of 11 have elected enough members to allow them to re-establish. This means that over half of East Renfrewshire’s population has no access to a community council and the support and advice they can offer (which is all they can do whilst their budget remains so appalling insufficient).
It is alarming that existing Community Councillors have chosen to effectively resign from their posts and not seek nomination. What could have lay behind their decision?
Perhaps the new Code of Conduct sheds some light on this. Many Community Councillors, including myself, have refused to seek re-nomination in protest against its introduction. The introduction of a new disciplinary process has caused the most outcry (see <link: http://www.eastrenfrewshire.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=15044&p=0 >Section 12, Scheme of Establishment).
Any complaints made against a Community Council or Community Councillor can be brought before a panel. This panel comprises of 3 Councillors and 2 Community Councillors. However, any decisions passed by the panel can be ratified by a quorum of 3 members. It is not difficult to speculate that perhaps decisions passed at these panels may favour the Council’s interests, rather than the good of the community.
To add to this, there are plans to cut the current number of Councillors from 20 to 18. This reduces the number of opportunities of women seeking office in the 2017 Councillor elections. If less than half of the Council’s current intake of Councillors are made up of women, then cutting current representation is going to be make the situation even worse.
Community Councils are good opportunities for women to get involved in local politics and address issues facing their area. ERC by introducing such an unpopular scheme has closed yet another door to women. CCs do need to be reformed. The current model, when the rest of Scotland’s CCs are still operating under, was established in the 1970s and is no longer fit for the 21st century.
ERC have made no attempt to engage with the local population regarding the new Scheme. It was passed on the basis of a consultation of 1, 000 people. That’s 1/20 of ERC’s population. How can that be democratic?
I’d like to set a challenge for each person reading this blog. Go onto your local authority website and find out when your next Community Council meeting is. Go along to it, find out what your CC is working on. Offer to help if you can (but try to avoid taking the minutes as per Gillian Martin’s advice). The reason that ERC has been able to remove over half of its Community Councils is because of apathy. Don’t let it happen in your local area.
I would like to thank Rae Condie, of WFI East Ren, for gathering the statistics used in this post.