If a normally sleeping member is allowed a rant about hyperlocal government in Scotland, i.e. community councils, please read on. If not, please stop here.
I began seething when the the council official responsible for supporting community councils in my local authority emailed that CCs should not try to meet ’normally’ online because such meetings exclude people who cannot access online meetings. His emails are below my signature. I’m not naming him or my council area, because it seems unfair to put this official alone in the firing line when it’s the whole ethos that gets up my nose.
Firstly, the phrase 'the Council is willing to permit requests from CCs for online meetings’ annoys me more than I can describe politely. It’s not up to the local authority to permit (or forbid) CC meetings.
It is true that online-only excludes a huge number of people. There are some figures from people who know far better than me here: https://bruceryan.info/2020/04/10/digital-exclusion-in-scotland-tweets-by-operanomad-and-oliverescobar/ This, of itself, is a tragedy. I intend to contribute practically to work tackling this when I’m back in Scotland. (I’m currently in Worcestershire for unpleasant personal reasons.)
But that should be no reason to forbid CCs from trying to carry on under these conditions as best as they can. Instead, I contend that local authorities should be supporting CCs to use online tools so they can engage with the majority of interested people who can use such tools. When lockdown ceases, they should be encouraging CCs to mix online and in-person tools, so those who cannot attend meetings in person can join remotely.
Of course local authorities took a few weeks to ensure core, life-or-death services are in good shape, and to sort out their own governance etc. You can’t save someone if you are also drowning. You can’t eat democracy. And I have every sympathy with the officials and elected members who are going through a whole load of unexpected challenges.
However, given that lockdown has been going for more than a month, after plenty of warning, I think it is now time that local authorities were working with, and supporting, their community councils and residents’ associations to carry on working on behalf of their people. It’s true that a lot of planning, a major part of CC work, is on hold. But planning work is being encouraged to go online. So CCs need to engage with their people, so they can find and represent community opinions in such planning processes. (That’s a legal duty from the the Local Government (Scotland) Act, Part IV. If a local authority encourages behaviour that is contrary to law, is it hence guilty of an offence?)
I realise I may have taken the worst possible interpretation here, so I’d be grateful for reality-checks.
In closing, I’d suggest you can’t eat democracy but you’ll soon suffer without it.