Community councils are voluntary organisations set up by statute by the local authority and run by local residents. They bridge the gap between local authorities and communities, and help to make public bodies aware of the opinions and needs of the communities they represent.
Their primary purpose is to represent local views to the local authority. They may also develop local projects, engage with residents, and campaign on local issues important to residents.
According to the official site for community councils in Scotland (www.communitycouncils.scot):
- Be non-party political and non-sectarian.
This does not seem to be the case for Lochgelly Community Council (LCC) where an instance of political interference within the community council has recently come to light. The community council appears to be closely aligned with Fife Labour.
Lochgelly community councillors are sensitive to accusations of political motivations within their group, posting on facebook:
We are non political, community based (sic.) organisation working to improve Lochgelly. We would ask that political comments are not made on this page.
In effect this statement serves to justify a policy of censorship by Lochgelly Community Council.
Residents wanting to post on LCC’s facebook page have found that raising a concern, however ‘unpolitical’, may be dealt with by summary deletion by the page’s anonymous moderators. If residents persist in asking awkward questions or criticising the community council, they may be blocked. The reason for this overt censorship, when it is given, is that those making the comments are being ‘political’ and the community council is a ‘non-political’ organisation.
This policy licenses the community council to discourage free and open debate and engagement with residents. This continues online and in social media a style of operation which has characterised the LCC for almost a decade.
While facebook threads by residents face deletion for being ‘political’, a recent FOI response shared with Loch of Shining Waters, a community hyperlocal in the Central Fife area, shows that the community council itself is far from politically neutral. The heavy hand of local Labour councillors, and one local Labour MSP, in influencing local campaigns conducted by Lochgelly Community Council, is all too evident.
A series of emails between Mark Hood, the Labour councillor for the Cardenden and Lochgelly ward, and the LCC Chair and Secretary, about setting up a campaign for a new health centre in Lochgelly, reveals inappropriate political involvement in the community council and direction of its activities by Fife Labour.
On 8th March 2016, Labour councillor Mark Hood wrote to community councillors:
I’ve created a Facebook page for the community council […] Once you have liked the page I can add you as administrators.
It is a concern that a councillor for the Labour Party has administrative rights for the community council’s facebook page. This has never been disclosed to the public, either on the facebook page or in any public minutes kept by LCC.
This raises many questions. Is a local Labour councillor still in control of the facebook page? Is Councillor Hood the admin responsible for deleting comments on the page, including one from local SNP councillor Ian Chisholm when he tried to highlight important information about LCC’s health centre campaign?
Such party-political involvement may come as no surprise to many in Lochgelly. It is common knowledge that Labour activists are rife in the community council. The LCC secretary Stevie Murray has acted as Mark Hood’s election agent, while the LCC chair, Brian Schulz, as well as fellow community councillors Jean McDonald and James Mann are all local Labour activists. There may be more serving on the LCC.
Councillor Hood’s email continues:
I’ve also created an online petition in the name of the community council using the wording I got from Brian, with some small changes to make it fit with the format of the online petition.
Again, we have another public platform being set-up in the name of Lochgelly community council by a Labour councillor, none of which is disclosed publicly. Is this because if residents knew the truth, they might conclude the health centre campaign is politically motivated?
Councillor Hood’s email continues:
I’ve created a post on the community council website, linking to the petition asking people to support our campaign.
As the screenshot below shows, the post Councillor Hood created appears under the name of Lochgelly Community Council.
The political nature of LCC’s health centre campaign by the community council, although denied vehemently by community councillors, is further brought to light in another series of emails.
On 12th March 2016 Councillor Hood wrote to two of his activists on the LCC, copying in Labour MSP Alex Rowley and local Labour councillor Linda Erskine:
See attached comments of support for the Health Centre campaign, they seem to contradict what Chisholm said in his report to the community council. The Courier have been on looking for a comment from me so it might be worth sending firstname.lastname@example.org your press release. You need make sure the community council get the credit if any announcement is made on funding.
Councillor Hood is giving direct advice to the LCC on how to run ‘their’ campaign and looking at ways to discredit local SNP councillor Ian Chisholm. Within half an hour, MSP Alex Rowley responds to Councillor Hood:
You need to make clear this is something that you have been fighting for over these last years and also say it is the local community that has fought for this new health centre and the fact that we are now getting it is because we totally need it not because a few politicians are jumping on the bandwagon.
Something like that!!
The emails show the Labour party deploying its political activists on Lochgelly Community Council to further a party-political agenda. The MSP is concerned to make sure the Labour Councillor and LCC claim sole credit for the ‘community campaign’ and play down the role played by other (ie. SNP politicians). The health centre campaign is being spun for party-political advantage.
When the campaign and petition were launched in the spring, they were directed at the SNP government in Holyrood, which the chair of the campaign Brian Schulz and Councillor Hood blamed for the lack of a new health centre in Lochgelly. This was consistent with Fife Labour’s championing of the NHS against alleged financial neglect by the SNP.
As the MSP makes clear, the campaign also offers an important opportunity to enhance the standing of Councillor Hood and Fife Labour at a time when Labour is losing significant support in opinion polls. In fact, Alex Rowley went on to lose his constituency seat in the Holyrood election two months later, the national decline in Labour support has shown no sign of stopping and Fife Labour can no longer assume Councillor Hood and Erskine’s seats are safe in next year’s council elections.
Evident in these emails is an all too political desire to hoodwink the public which is completely at odds with the all-important political neutrality community councils are supposed to demonstrate.
LCC members have concealed the key involvement of Labour politicians in the health centre campaign. They have also failed to declare political interests and step away from activities where a conflict of interest arises. These failures in disclosure have once again brought the Lochgelly Community Council into disrepute.
How can a community council do its primary job of fairly representing the views of a local community when those views are being secretly filtered by activists for party-political ends? How can residents be expected to trust such a community council or to engage with it?
It is tragic that the minority of community councillors that are in attendance for genuinely altruistic reasons face an uphill struggle to make the LCC work for residents. It is even more tragic that local Labour Councillors and Labour activists are prepared to treat the health and well-being of residents as a political football against the SNP-led Scottish Government. Perhaps most tragic of all is that a much-needed campaign to improve healthcare facilities in Lochgelly is falling by the wayside due to local political shenanigans.