What have councils ever done for us?

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland local government correspondent

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption, How many of us are aware of the work that councils do?

This is a local election where local issues risk becoming overlooked.

Even before the general election was called, Brexit and independence threatened to overshadow local issues.

Indeed some parties and candidates actively sought to highlight national issues.

But are there also underlying questions to consider about how well the work of councils is understood by voters?

Councils provide local services for everyone, but we do not all make the same use of these services.

It is not uncommon for someone to claim they have had little contact with their council since they bought their council house.

Certainly, as more people bought their homes in the 80s and 90s the relationship between citizens and councils evolved but there are few, if any, who are truly left untouched by a council service.

As a broad rule, local services can be split into two:

  • Services designed for the whole community such as bin collections, street lights, road maintenance, council sports facilities and libraries
  • Services which can be tailored to the needs of each person such as social work, help for the vulnerable and education

Again as a broad rule of thumb, the better off or less vulnerable you are, the less likely you are to feel any degree of personal dependency on a service or feel that it greatly affects your own life rather than the community as a whole.

The obvious exception to the rule is education.

Councils do other work too, of course - granting planning permission, licensing pubs and clubs and helping local economic development.

But are all these responsibilities, or the sometimes complex and nuanced decisions facing both councillors and council staff, all sufficiently understood by the public?

Local paper decline

It is worth noting the misconception which many in local government like to highlight that councils are funded by the council tax - in fact this typically makes up less than a fifth of a typical council's budget.

Most of their cash is from the Scottish government and business rates.

When national broadcasters and major newspapers cover council business, it is rarely routine - inevitably they concentrate on exceptional decisions, examples of good or bad practice and the relationship between local and central government.

Traditionally, the everyday was covered by local papers - especially the weekly papers which serve most communities outside the big cities.

But just as the national press has seen sales slip, so too have local papers.

It is not unusual to see examples of sales of local papers having halved in a decade.

Financial pressures

Some local papers which have seen their resources depleted no longer regularly cover routine council meetings.

The cumulative effect over time might be that some council business could simply slip under the radar - something which can change the context through which a local controversy, such as a row over whether a project was a waste of money, might be seen.

Ironically, a decline in the amount of council advertising in the local press may have added to the financial pressures which mean some council business is not being covered.

Of course there are potential solutions too - for instance some councils webcast their meetings. And while traditional local papers have declined in popularity, in some communities there are thriving local websites.

Some who campaigned for the establishment of local television had hoped it could play a part re-engaging voters with local democracy.

However, STV's decision to turn its local stations into a Scottish national station called STV2 would appear to reduce the potential for this to ever happen. Many local TV stations in other parts of the UK have struggled to make an impact.

Rural communities

But perhaps the best way for councils and councillors to ensure their affairs are well understood by voters does not involve the media or technology.

Some councillors are among the best-known figures in their communities. People who might never think of making an appointment at a councillor's surgery, might approach them in the supermarket or the pub and discuss problems or issues informally or simply tell them straight what they think of a policy.

By the same token, many of the best councillors will know most of the interesting or important people in their ward.

That can be easy in rural communities or small towns - less so in cities.

But is there something to be said for the kind of old-fashioned engagement that doesn't involve having to use journalists or broadcasters as the middle men? At least as long as the media can also hold them to account.

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