I am sure those of us concerned with rural communities, and community councils in particular, have heard perhaps the most frequently asked question: “How can we get the voice of the community heard?” and have been stumped by the solution.
I have to say I don’t think there is an off the shelf solution but I am willing to share what happened to my Borders Community Council in the hope that something we did may provide some inspiration for you.
When I joined our CC seven years ago it was quite apparent that our views and comments forwarded to the Scottish Borders Council may not fully represent all of our community; I felt this was clearly the case in our responses on important planning applications. There was just no mechanism for getting the views from the community, or conversely, passing on information to it. Both are essential of course.
Based on a postal survey of our population in which 378 Homes were targeted and 47% (178) completed the questionnaire, on being elected as Chair and with a new CC secretary the first thing we did was to ensure our communications were improved as much as possible. Although we knew that our broadband service was not entirely fit for the 21st century, we felt that most of our community would use it and have an email address.
So we put out our requests to get email addresses in both of our valleys and arranged these into geographical areas so we could target as necessary. Our Secretary also laboured at every meeting to get names to go on our confidential list, whether the meetings were organised by us or not. We think we have an email contact in the majority of our homes now, but will not stop adding to it.
We also have a Facebook page, well 2 in fact. One is used solely for posting CC information, notices, planning applications etc. and all of these are copied on to the general page, which is also used by the 760 members for chit chat, photo’s etc. Both are managed by me (although they need no interference at all). This has proved an incredibly fast method of getting urgent information out if needed, and it’s proved a very useful tool in the case of accidents, road closures etc. We even run a car pool from it. Without a doubt Facebook does bond and strengthen our communities.
So, armed with the knowledge that we know what the community thinks on things, and after conducting an email survey on issues, we have twice been able to put two important matters to the Scottish Borders Council Scrutiny Committee and have been successful in getting a significant increase in the roads budget, and in underpinning a new procedure for determining capital expenditure.
The role of the Scrutiny Committee is:
• to examine various functions of the Council
• to question how some key decisions have been made
• to investigate issues of local concern to residents
So, as you can imagine, having the strength of the community behind us gives us confidence to take matters to the Scrutiny Committee. Being well prepared helps them and in turn gets us a lot of kudos and a good reputation beyond our valleys. Through this we know too that we have the ear of the SBC and are definitely listened to.
It provides me with some comfort to know that, when the time comes, the knowledge gained and procedures established in our CC will set it up nicely for the future.