Authority accused of incompetent and dictatorial behaviour over "anti-democratic" moves to disband community councils
Herald Scotland, by Daniel Sanderson
East Renfrewshire Council has brought in new rules which it says are designed to increase transparency while making the local groups, which have access to funding and the right to have a say on planning and licensing applications, more inclusive and accessible.
But the authority has been criticised in other quarters, after the scheme also included new powers to sack community councillors, limit terms of office and dissolve the organisations all over again. New community councillors will be sought later this year and elections held if necessary, despite the groups being less than half way into their terms.
Last year, a row intensified when three of the 10 community councils attempted to amend their constitutions, which the authority said was against the rules leading to threats they would be disenfranchised and their funding cut off.
Council insiders said some of the groups had been accused of bullying, undemocratic behaviour and were being used as vehicles to further personal interests. Under the new scheme, East Renfrewshire Council has given itself the explicit right to veto any moves to change constitutions.
Under its new rules the community council seen as most outspoken – Newton Mearns – will no longer exist. Complaints against community councillors will be investigated by a panel of three councillors and just two community councillors, handing the more powerful local politicians a majority.
Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, MSP for the West of Scotland, said East Renfrewshire Council was becoming "increasingly incompetent and dictatorial in its behaviour" and is set to ask the Scottish Government to step in.
He said: "Community Councils sit at the very heart of local communities and by voting to disband those in East Renfrewshire, the council launched a vindictive strike against local democracy simply to curtail the inconvenience of local residents disagreeing with them.
"Having fought hard 20 years ago to ensure the creation of this local authority I am increasingly starting to doubt whether East Renfrewshire Council can survive in its current form or with its current personnel."
The existing 10 community councils will be replaced by 11, despite a lack of interest in taking up the voluntary roles. They will serve a population of no more than 20,000 each.
David Jesner, the chair of Newton Mearns Community Council, said that "Robert Mugabe would have been proud" of the reforms pushed through by the council.
He added: "Can you imagine if David Cameron said we’ve found a better approach to Holyrood, so we’re going to disband it and hold fresh elections? Or if the Scottish Parliament decided just to disband all councils? There would be carnage. But East Renfrewshire Council think they can do just that, community councillors were voted in to do a job but they’re saying they can just get rid of them with a stroke of a pen.
"The legislation is clear that Community Councils should be independent. We represent our residents’ views and they hate us for it. Democracy does not exist at East Renfrewshire Council, which is run like a private fiefdom."
A spokeswoman for East Renfrewshire Council said: "The decision was taken to review the scheme of establishment to enable more local people to get involved with their local community council and participate in local decision making. This follows 18 months of well-publicised consultation with local people. More than 1,000 people participated in the consultation and the new set of guidelines has been now been agreed. New community councils have to be established for statutory reasons and this will be done later this year. In the past there has rarely been the requirement for actual elections as nominations for community council places has not exceeded the number of seats available."