COUNCILLORS have commissioned a report examining whether the isles’ community councils could become more powerful bodies with the authority to own property, employ staff and raise their own revenue.
Members of the outgoing council voted 9-6, with one abstention, in favour of a notice of motion from councillor Jonathan Wills and also signed by political leader Gary Robinson calling for a report into the matter.
It recognised that turning community councils into corporate bodies with power to raise revenue including a portion of the council tax could only be achieved using the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
The notice of motion suggests that working with other islands councils through the Our Islands Our Future initiative “may be a suitable way forward, perhaps with a pilot scheme” and says the SIC wants to engage with community councils and “consult widely on the development of this proposal for community empowerment”.
Robinson said the Scottish Government was still trying to work out what to do now that the nationwide Community Empowerment Act is in force, and he was keen for Shetland to be “at the front of the pack”.
In the absence of Wills, he was seconded by councillor Frank Robertson, who pointed out it was 40 years since community councils were established.
He said Sandness and Walls Community Council in his ward had used its own initiative to set up a trust, raise funding and build a new road and a boat slip at West Burrafirth for lobster fishing.
He said community councils’ power had been “watered down” since then and there was a “certain air of moribund-ness” among them, but the Scottish Government appeared to be “very enthusiastic about community engagement”.
But councillor Drew Ratter questioned the value of investing more powers in community councils.
He pointed out that their members were almost all elected unopposed, that he had never seen “any slight enthusiasm” among community councils for taking on more powers or responsibilities, and that looking to devolve power away from the SIC seemed like a “mysterious wish to do self-harm” at a time when the government is “leeching powers away” from local authorities.
Ratter said that if councillors wanted to look at community empowerment, it should not be confined to community councils – offering the example of the Northmavine Community Development Company as an organisation whose record “soars away from anything” community councils have ever achieved.
Councillor Billy Fox agreed that it seemed odd to “seek to devolve more powers to something that is a good deal less democratic in terms of appointments to community councils, and the very few elections that take place”.
“It’s something that might be looked at in future,” he said, “but at this moment in time the timing is just not correct.”
But Robinson insisted the timing was “absolutely right” with a “short window of opportunity” before the Community Empowerment Act “sets all this in stone”.
He stressed that enabling community councils to become corporate bodies, own property, enter into contracts and employ staff was “not necessarily saying we’re devolving anything to anybody”, but about “allowing them to do things some of them would like to do”.