Be careful what you wish for over local democracy
Very few of us really learn from our own mistakes; fewer still, I fancy, from the mistakes of others. In the 1970s, the wool trade – long the staple industry of the Scottish Borders – found itself in decline. Unemployment was rising, high street shops were closing and an air of gloom prevailed.
A g overnment sponsored programme called the Borders Buildup was instituted and the town of Galashiels, for one, saw large new housing estates being built.
The idea was that an influx of fresh ideas and businesses coupled with great population growth would produce masses of new jobs. Abracadabra! Prosperity and contentment would spread throughout the land.
The entrenched old council had not been doing quite the job that the incomers were happy with, and various local committees and pressure groups came into being. Eventually, doors were opened to allow officially recognized Community Councils to emerge.
The stated purpose of these was to deal with local issues and to have a limited degree of official representation at various Town Council meetings.
The new residents of Galashiels were delighted. Their new Community Council would, it was declared, form a conduit through which opinions and information could flow from the lowliest council tenant to the mightiest in the land. Yea, even to the Laird of Galashiels himself (memory is vague on this point but I think the Laird at that time was a woman).
Volunteers emerged, including smart-suited businessmen, ex-Glaswegian shipyard radicals and hand-knitted folkies. Elections were held, officers appointed and the Community Council declared itself to be up, running and ready for business. Off they went with great gusto, passing resolutions and formulating carefully researched proposals for submission to the council proper.
Did the council react in the hopedfor manner? Of course not. Their response to most proposals was one of ‘thanks but, regretfully, no thanks’.
It soon began to be felt that the whole Community Council thing had been a con.
The real purpose had not been to represent – and present – local opinion in an effective manner; it was to fence it in, contain it and, by giving it the illusion and trappings of official status, to draw the teeth of any radical elements who may have been a threat to the status quo.
You who relish the dream of a new dawn of local democracy, be careful what you wish for…