The Community Empowerment Act 2015 had a lot squeezed into it. One section that some folk speculated might be the surprise package was contained in Part 3 of the Act which gave communities the right to request to participate in public sector decision making with a view to improving outcomes. Participation Requests only came into effect in April 2017 so it’s still early days to make any judgement. All the same, it’s interesting to see which public authorities are receiving these requests and how they have responded.
Participation Requests came into effect in April 2017, and 31 had been reported by local authorities in Scotland up to the end of December 2018. This briefing assesses the participation requests received to date and considers the learning to emerge from early adopters. It also summarises some of the participation requests themselves and considers some of the reasons why participation requests may be granted or refused.
Briefing in full
Part 3 of the Community Empowerment Act 2015 enables communities to request to participate in public sector decisions and processes that are aimed at improving outcomes. The original Act states: “A community participation body may make a request to a public service authority to permit the body to participate in an outcome improvement process“. Part 3 came into effect on 1 April 2017 when The Participation Request (Procedure) (Scotland) Regulations came into force. The Regulations require a public service authority to “promote the use of participation requests by publishing on a website or by other electronic means (including by use of social media) information explaining how a participation request may be made to that authority.” The Regulations set out a timetable that public service authorities must follow in processing a participation request, including the publication of statutory reports and notices. These include decision notices, published online when a decision has been made on whether or not to grant a participation request, and an annual report on the participation requests received by a public authority each financial year and the action the authority has taken to promote participation requests.
The table appended to this briefing summarises progress to 31 December 2018 in Scotland’s 32 local authorities. The information has been taken in part from councils’ own websites, and in part from a straw poll and follow-up with members of the Community Planning Managers’ Network. The table is not necessarily complete as public authorities are under no obligation to publish information about participation requests received until a decision notice is due. Community bodies have also made participation requests to public bodies other than councils, although in smaller numbers.
The key statistics emerging from the data are as follows:
Total number of participation requests made to local authorities as reported at 31 December 2018 31
Number of councils which have received participation requests 13
Number of councils which have not yet received any requests 19
Number of participation requests granted 18
Number of participation requests refused 9
Decisions pending at 31 December 2018 4
Total number of requests received from Community Councils 21
Total number of requests received from other community bodies 10
The 13 councils that have reported participation requests so far are:
Council Received/ Granted/ Refused
Argyll and Bute Council 5 4 0
Glasgow City Council 5 2 3
South Lanarkshire Council 3 2 1
West Lothian Council 3 1 1
City of Edinburgh Council 2 1 1
Midlothian Council 2 2 0
Orkney Islands Council 2 1 1
Aberdeenshire Council 1 1 0
Clackmannanshire Council 1 1 0
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar 1 1 0
Fife Council 1 0 1
Renfrewshire Council 1 0 0
Scottish Borders Council 4 2 1
There is no geographical bias detectable here, with a range from Orkney to the Borders and a good mix of urban and rural authorities. However, it is noteworthy that participation requests received from community councils outweigh those from other bodies by 2 to 1. We can deduce from this that an active community council network is an indicator that a local authority can expect to receive some participation requests.
The ratio of requests granted to requests refused is approximately 2:1. The Act states that an authority must agree to a participation request unless there are reasonable grounds for refusing it. “Reasonable grounds” are not defined in ether the Act or the Regulations, but the Act requires an authority to consider the following factors when making a decision:
the reasons given by the community body for wishing to take part in the proposed outcome improvement process
whether agreement would be likely to improve economic development, regeneration, public health, social wellbeing, or environmental wellbeing
whether agreement would be likely to reduce inequalities of outcome and increase participation by people who experience socio-economic disadvantage
It should also be borne in mind that the Guidance issued by Scottish Government states that participation requests “are not intended to replace good quality existing community engagement or participation processes but are rather designed to complement and enhance them. Similarly, Participation Requests are not intended to be an extension of complaints procedures but should rather be viewed as an opportunity for communities to establish formal dialogue with public service authorities”.
To look beyond the statistics, we can take a look at some of the participation requests reported to date. Some information is available from the Decision Notices published on council websites, and from their annual reports for 2017-18. Despite the statutory nature of Decision Notices, they can be difficult to locate and a variety of sources was consulted to compile the information included here.
Many of the published Decision Notices for requests that have been granted do not give much information beyond agreeing to an outcome improvement process. We can expect further information on these processes to be published in councils’ annual reports for 2018-19. Of more interest at this stage are the requests that have been refused, since Decision Notices are required to state the reasons for refusal. It is evident that many council respondents have given very careful thought to their deliberations.
Local authority Aberdeenshire Council
Community body Mearns Community Council and Stonehaven Community Council
Decision Notice 10 December 2018 – GRANTED
Summary of request The outcome sought was “increased Community Empowerment and improved and equitable participation in decision making around participatory budgeting policy”. Mearns Community Council, Stonehaven Community Council and other Community Councils supporting the request were invited to participate in a facilitated workshop to collectively and collaboratively design an outcome improvement process.
Local authority Argyll and Bute Council
Community body Blairmore Village Trust
Decision Notice 12 July 2017 – GRANTED
Summary of request Unusually this request related to a private road in Blairmore, and the outcome improvement process involves a second public agency: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The outcome sought was improvement of access to services and equality of provision of services, which would create opportunities for community regeneration and economic security. Blairmore Village Trust has obtained funding from the National Park, commissioned a topographical survey of the route, appointed engineers and a projected manager, and is seeking better engagement with the council to help progress the scheme.
Local authority City of Edinburgh Council
Community body Portobello Community Council
Decision Notice 7 June 2017 – GRANTED
Summary of request Portobello Community Council requested to be involved in the sale of the “Pitz” site in Westbank Street, beyond the participation they would have had through the usual planning process. This included having an opportunity to influence the use of the land and final sale decision before a preferred bidder is chosen. In response, the council developed an Outcome Improvement Process which allowed further engagement with the community before the preferred bidder was chosen. The process included Portobello Amenity Society that had also asked to be involved.
Local authority Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
Community body Families Into Sport for Health (“FiSH”)
Decision Notice 6 February 2018 – GRANTED
Summary of request FiSH requested improved and equitable access to recreational facilities for the health and wellbeing of families, especially children, specifically Sunday opening of the Lewis sports centre, Ionad Spors Leodhais. In granting the request, the Comhairle noted that the Quality of Life Priority Group of the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership proposed to develop a whole-life physical activity, sport and health strategy to achieve the LOIP outcome of increased levels of physical activity and mental wellbeing for children and young people. FiSH would have an opportunity to participate in the process by being consulted for its views on the strategy.
Local authority Glasgow City Council
Community body Drumoyne Community Council
Decision Notice 17 August 2017 – REFUSED
Summary of request Drumoyne Community Council submitted their request to Glasgow City Council and asked that Greater Glasgow Health Board and the Scottish Government be involved. The request was to be involved in the decision making on a parking scheme for the G51 area of Glasgow and associated road issues. Greater Glasgow Health Board declined to participate on the grounds that traffic management policy and procedures within the city was a matter for the council. Scottish Government is not listed as a public service authority in Schedule 2 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and therefore was not required to respond. The request was refused on the grounds that the G51 parking scheme had already been the subject of extensive community consultation and engagement and an independent review, there had been ample opportunity for Drumoyne Community Council to be involved in the decision making and the outcome had already been fully and properly considered.
Local authority Orkney Islands Council
Community body Westray Community Council
Decision Notice 26 September 2018 – GRANTED
Summary of request The outcome sought was to resolve matters relating to the health and safety of pedestrians, and improved safety for vehicle manoeuvring, at Rapness Pier. The request was granted on the grounds of public health and social wellbeing. The Outcome Improvement Process was progressed initially by means of a workshop held on Westray, attended by representatives of Westray Community Council, Orkney Ferries and Orkney Islands Council. A course of action was agreed at the workshop, to be implemented in time for the 2019 tourist season.
Local authority South Lanarkshire Council
Community body Halfway Community Council
Decision Notice 15 December 2017 – REFUSED
Summary of request This request related to a Planning Obligation entered into between the Council as planning authority, the landowner and Persimmon Homes Limited as planning applicant in relation to a proposed development at Gilbertfield, and specifically to the detail in that document in relation to (a) the community gain money and (b) the wider improvements that were expected to the infrastructure in Cambuslang East to cope with the increase in population. The request was refused on two grounds. Firstly, a planning obligation was not an outcome improvement process as defined by the Act and so was not a process in which a community participation body was entitled to participate in terms of the Act. The request was therefore deemed invalid but was given further consideration in an alternative interpretation as a request to participate in decision-making with regard to developer contributions towards affordable housing, schools and other community projects. However, the request was ultimately declined because the developer contributions were for specific purposes that had already been agreed as part of the planning process and could not be changed.
Nearly all councils now have information relating to participation requests available on their websites, but it is not always easy to find. The Act requires councils to promote participation requests, and the best websites have all their information relating to the Act, local guidance, Decision Notices and Annual Reports collected together in one place and easily found on their search engines. This may not seem a priority for councils that have yet to receive a participation request, but it is helpful for community bodies and invaluable for hard-pressed council officers who may receive a participation request out of the blue and have no idea what it is.
It is evident from the Decision Notices published to date that councils are taking proper account of their responsibilities under the Act. However, the validation stage is not always being utilised to best advantage. This stage is an opportunity to work with community bodies to ensure that their participation request meets the validation criteria in the Act before it is submitted for consideration. Where this is not done, and a request turns out to be invalid, public service authorities have no alternative other than to refuse it, whereas reframing the request in advance might lead to a more positive result.
In addition to the Decision Notices summarised above, some councils have helpfully posted online additional details of the participation requests made to their authority. From these it is possible to infer that, in a number of cases, participation requests have been made as a last resort by community bodies that have repeatedly tried and failed to engage with their local authorities, and these requests have rightly been granted. As the Act states, participation requests are not intended to be a substitute for effective community engagement processes, but they can be a good indicator of how effective our community engagement processes really are. On the other side of the coin, a smaller number of participation requests have been made, in the wake of extensive engagement processes, by community bodies that were unhappy with the resulting decision and were seeking to overturn it, and these have been refused.
It is early days but there is evidence that community bodies, and particularly community councils, are taking an active interest in participation requests. Publication of annual reports for 2018-19, which must be done by 30 June 2019, will be an opportunity to publicise the positive outcomes arising from outcome improvement processes triggered by participation requests, and inspire more of our local communities to find out what this new power can do for them.
Scottish Community Alliance. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.scottishcommunityalliance.org.uk/articles/2894/