The Scottish Community Education Council is approaching the reform of local government in a positive spirit with a series of seminars designed to define the "community" and how it might be more involved in its own welfare. The seminars, sponsored by The TES Scotland, mark the launch of the Community Government Exchange through which ideas of participation and empowerment may be shared beyond the sphere of community educators. Judging from the attendance at the first of these (page 2), councillors and officials from the new authorities seem keen to sign up.
The reforms due to be implemented in just over two months are supposed to improve local government. That was the rhetoric of Government speakers during the debates on the legislation. But widespread concerns about the effects of breaking up the regions and about ministers' real intentions effectively buried the message. The speakers at the seminar, Douglas Sinclair, general secretary of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and Charlie McConnell, SCEC's chief executive, are no apologists for the Government but both were ardent that reform offered opportunity for new thinking as well as new structures.
As Mr Sinclair said, the future of local government depends on strengthening the democratic input. The stripping away of local autonomy which has been so much a feature of the past 16 years is unlikely to be reversed, but more could be lost if the value of local democracy is not emphasised. The lack of interest by many people in councils and the elections to them has to be countered. Whether the reason for low polls has been apathy or cynicism is debatable but in the end irrelevant. The benefits of participation - through tenants' groups, school boards and the like - have to be clear. Then people will want to become involved.
It was clear from discussion at the seminar that a change of climate, although dependent on attitudes in the new authorities, cannot be imposed from above. Councils should decentralise, and most are doing so. But as Mr McConnell put it, professionals have to be "on tap, not on top". The community has to enfranchise itself.
Once the new councils are faced with the pressure of difficult choices and inadequate budgets, the idealism evident at the seminar will be put to the test. Only then will it be possible to decide whether "community governance" is attainable or naively wistful.