Governance Questions from Colonsay Community Council to Argyll & Bute Council
The first COVID lockdown threw up some challenges for the CCC, primarily in dealing with urgent practical measures for the community, and later, as the ending of lockdown came, with sincere, strongly held but sometimes differing views across the community on how to approach the challenges we shared. We conducted an online survey in June to gauge the community's views and this gave a helpful, if not perfect, picture of where the community stood at that moment, and the CCC shared these views with SG and ABC. The rapid ending of lockdown in July caused further concerns, and outwith the CCC a petition to SG was raised by some members of the community, which the CCC endorsed and again shared with SG and ABC.
Section One. Definition of “Community” and how the CC should represent views:
1. During the preparation of a survey of the Colonsay Community in June this year both Jane Howard and I [RB, Richard Buttrick] spoke with you and took your direction on who should be included in “the Community” for that survey. What we clearly heard and that who is in the “Community” must be taken broadly, and that the CC must not reflect only the views of a section of the Community.
Q: Please can you provide us with written confirmation of ABC's position on who is to be considered as part of the Community served by the CC, so that we can share this with the Community ?
A: While there is no precise definition within the Scheme for the Establishment for Community Councils in Argyll and Bute or in the Scottish Executive's model Scheme, which Local Authorities in Scotland are encouraged to base their local Schemes on, it is clear that “community” should be taken broadly as set out in accompanying guidance. The Scottish Executive has provided Good Practice Guidance to accompany their model Scheme which implies community is based on natural geographic boundaries. There are also references throughout the document which points towards population rather than electorate. This being the case it is reasonable to conclude that community consists of people, businesses, local community groups etc. This guidance is reflected in our Scheme and associated documentation.
In accepting that community councils represent their geographic boundary, within the roles and responsibilities section it is stated that “ Community councils have a duty under statute to represent the views of their local community. It is vital therefore, that they reflect the broad spectrum of opinion and interests of all sections of the community”
2. Taking this broad approach to who is in the Community, there have been some concerns amongst councillors and the Community in general about the appropriate way to weight the views of sections of the Community, which naturally have different interests and concerns.
Q: Please, can you confirm that when representing the views of the Community to national and local government that it is appropriate for a CC to differentiate between different sections of the Community? Any additional guidance on how best to weight the views of different sections of the Community will be appreciated .
A: The Best Practice Agreement covers the right to differentiate between different sections of the community – “In expressing views, community councils should ensure that they reflect the balance of community interest and that the views expressed are set out in writing and relevant to the issues under discussion. The Secretary as official correspondent should ensure that they are acting with appropriate authority of the community council to do so when setting out the views of the community council in writing”
In every case where representations are made on behalf of the community the guidance will always be directed at maximising the benefit for your community. This can mean that more weight can be given to the views of those who will be more affected by a proposal. However, collectively and individually the community council need to explain decisions reached to comply with the provisions in the Code of Conduct regarding openness which state “You have a duty to be open about your decisions, actions and representations, giving reasons for these where appropriate. You should be able to justify your decisions and be confident that you have not been unduly influenced by the views and/or opinions of others”. For this reason the community themselves must determine how to weight views.
The council have offered community engagement training to community councils and have an online community engagement toolkit which communities can put to use. The council can give also guidance to fit the situation under consideration but at the end of the day the decision making is a role for community councils.
3. The direction received from ABC is that where there are different views across the Community (as opposed to consensus or a shared view) the CC's duty is to reflect the overall views of the whole Community, including both majority and minority views, rather than to act an advocate for a particular view or section of the Community.
A: Please can you confirm ABC's view of the circumstances in which the CC can act as an advocate for a majority or minority view of the Community ?
A: The need to represent a balance again comes from the Code of Conduct - “In expressing views, community councils should ensure that they reflect the balance of community interest and that the views expressed are set out in writing and relevant to the issues under discussion. The Secretary as official correspondent should ensure that they are acting with appropriate authority of the community council to do so when setting out the views of the community council in writing” If the balance of views is a majority or minority position then advocating for such a position complies with the terms of the Code of Conduct, specifically the principle regarding objectivity.
Section Two. Governance of CCs in small communities
4. The CCC's Constitution and Standing Orders set out a formal governance structure with which the CCC complies. At the same, to encourage community participation, the CCC has historically preferred a somewhat informal approach to participation in meetings, for example having open discussions on issues and encouraging members of the public to participate during the discussion rather than waiting until the end to raise questions. This flexibility is important, practical and in keeping with the role of the CC on Colonsay, and at the same time is likely to meet a similar need in the CC's of other small communities.
Q: What specific guidance, if any, is there for governance of CCs in small communities, particularly where a less formal inclusive approach is taken in CC meetings?
A: There needs to be a degree of formality to ensure that procedures are followed at the main community council meetings but providing the Convener controls the input and relevance of questions then this participative approach doesn't breach any governance provisions.
5. The governance procedures the CCC has been given are clearly designed for a more formal structure and a larger community, for example in the Standing Orders the handling of interests is formal, mechanistic and based on assumptions of process.
Q: What code of good practice is there for Councillors in small CC's with regards to chairing, participation and conduct of meetings, and with regards to personal behaviour such as objectivity and dealing with personal views?
A: There is a single governance framework for all community councils with the only difference being that smaller community councils can meet less frequently. As democratic bodies there is a need for community councillors to uphold the values within the code of conduct. This requires objectivity and those who have personal views must accept that the role of being a community council is to represent the views of the community which might mean setting aside their own personal views.
Q: What latitude do CCs have for establishing their own approach to standing orders and handling of governance issues such as management of interests?
A: Community councils can seek to amend standing orders by following the process for this outlined with the Scheme. However, any changes must be approved by the Council before they can be adopted and put into place. Any changes proposed must be consistent with upholding the values within the wider governance framework.
In terms of management of interests, there is a clear process for this which requires community councils, for reasons of transparency, to declare interests and have the remaining members of the community council determine whether the interest which such that the person should not take place in discussions or decision making. A protocol was sent to all community councils after the inaugural meeting in 2018 which could be modified for local purpose. However, the main message of this protocol was that where financial interests are apparent (either direct financial interests of indirect financial interests) the person who has made the declaration must not participate in any circumstances. That is not something which the council would be likely to change its view on.
Section Three. CC processes during COVID
6. During the first COVID lockdown the CCC had to improvise a process to keep pace with evolving events, discussing urgent practical issues by email and in ad hoc (private) calls, and then returned to public meetings (via Zoom) when it was practical to do so.
Q: What guidance exists for the operation of CCs during such extreme circumstances?
A: The guidance regarding use of virtual means of meeting was first permitted following a decision by the Business Continuity Committee on 14 th May. This covered situations where community councils had consultative measures in place to reflect views of the community and where they did not. In the case of the latter there is a process for making urgent decisions by email but this would only apply where technology or expertise was not available to hold remote meetings. We cannot (and should not) move too far from the Scheme's requirements to have openness and transparency in decision making.
7. The CCC provided what transparency it could of these urgent discussions, for example publishing minutes of its ad hoc private calls, but naturally the Community want to remain connected with the work of the CCC, especially during critical times.
Q: What advice is there for maintaining transparency of CC activities and actions during such circumstances?
A: A mechanism is in place for urgent decision making and informal, non-decision making meetings and I'd refer you to our correspondence on this subject of 14 May 2020. If the community council have access to remote meeting technology there is an expectation that they will allow for public attendance at these remote meetings. They should be advertised in accordance with the Scheme (providing 7 days' notice), with an agenda setting out what business will be discussed and minutes should be made available within 14 days from the date of the meeting.
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