Valuing community councils

Mass resignations from Old Town Community Council reflect a wider problem for community representation argues Cllr Nigel Bagshaw.

Old Town Community Council collapsed in November, with members citing despair as to the burdens placed on them by major planning applications, like Caltongate, and other proposals, on which they felt their view was being ignored.

It is hard to think of a community council with greater burdens than one right in the heart of the mediaeval city, with the whole weight of world heritage status to contend with. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the pressures placed upon the Old Town CC are unique. That is why I pressed Council Leader Andrew Burns on this very matter last week, and why I was so disappointed that the sole response was a reference to the “Planning Concordat” and £300’s worth of engagement funding.

Across the city there are community councils, even after refreshed elections two months ago, which are only hanging on through the superhuman efforts of some very committed individuals. They are expected to wrestle with increasingly complex planning applications, up against multi-million pound developers, as well as keep an eye on a steady flow of licensing proposals. So they find it difficult to carve out time for forward-looking projects; although, remarkably, these still happen against the odds.

And it is that sense of always being placed on the back foot which makes burn-out so common and, ironically, puts lots of community-minded people off being involved in community councils in the first place.

So how do we break that downward spiral? £300 grants won’t do it. It needs a more far-reaching commitment to give communities parity with developers and big businesses in decision-making. In the planning system, introducing a third-party right of appeal, as in other European countries, would be a game-changer, forcing development interests to take community views seriously. Give people real power and they will have a reason to engage.

When any one community council falls, it weakens the city as a whole.