Local Democracy and Crail Town Hall
Some readers of Crail Matters will be aware of the fuss about allocation by Fife Council of space in Crail Town Hall, and the eventual potential disposal of the Town Hall under the Community Transfer Scheme. The majority of readers probably couldn’t care less – and in all honesty, why should they? The population of Crail is around 1000 adults, but outside of one off events such as Festival bookings, Community Council events such as the election meetings or the Folk Club, etc., how many people regularly make use of the Town Hall or even go into it? 50? 100? And how many young people use it? Despite the new lift, it is not the most accessible or attractive hall in Crail, and it’s in a relatively poor state of repair (a Fife Council survey in 2015 indicated some £105,000 needed spending then to bring it up to an acceptable state). Given its iconic and symbolic standing most people would undoubtedly like to see it preserved and indeed flourish, but past performance suggests a reluctance to commit time or effort towards achieving that end. That a small unrepresentative body such as the Town Hall Management Committee should seek to take on that responsibility seems to solve the problem for everyone; it suggests a lot of effort for very little reward, and in a sense, they should be applauded for their public-spirited response. And if so, does it matter that no-one knew about the decisions? So why is there a problem?
The problem is not about the specifics of leasing the old library area – having some occupancy is in principle better than no occupancy. Whether the proposed use is good, bad, efficient or adequate is something to monitor and to use evidence to make a judgement about later, but of lesser importance than how the decision was made. The reason for this lies in the way in which a Common Good property held by Fife Council ‘for the benefit of Crail’ was leased in a private meeting to an unrepresentative community body arguably in perpetuity (due to tacit relocation and the apparent reluctance of Fife Council to rescind leases in favour of one community body to another) without reference to either the Community Council or the elected Fife Councillors. This gives rise to two very fundamental questions: 1. If this property can be treated in this way, what confidence can we as a community have in the future over the stewardship by Fife Council of other properties in the Crail Common Good Fund, or indeed the fund itself which currently stands at around £1,000,000? Given the financial pressures Fife Council faces, it must be very tempting for officials to simply ignore the views of the community and act in the interests not of Crail, but Fife Council. 2. What is the point of electing councillors (Fife Councillors or Community Councillors) if they are excluded from such major decision making? It makes a mockery of democratic processes, and puts council officials in the position of colonial administrators, making decisions ‘in the interests’ of people, rather than letting them take those decisions themselves, either through public representatives, or through overarching community bodies such as the Crail Partnership. And of course, it raises the question – is this because we are we not to be trusted? The action of Fife Council in this instance also appears to be in direct contravention of Scottish Government policy and the Making Places initiative which seeks to increasingly empower communities to make important planning decisions about the future of their towns and villages.
This is an important matter. The decision to vary the lease on the Town Hall was taken in March by Council officials without any public consultation. This decision has now only been made public because of a direct query, rather than an announcement by Fife Council. Fife Councillors and the Community Council were unaware of this, were not consulted and were not informed of the logic, viability or circumstances around the decision.
This can be remedied in 2 ways. Fife Council could admit that the process whereby this decision was made is contrary to both good practise and public interest and rescind the lease and embark on a process of consultation, or the Town Hall Management Committee could decline the lease in the interest of community cohesion and public good and seek support for their proposals through genuine and open public consultation. Either of these may result in the same outcome, but the fundamental principles of openness, transparency and accountability in the stewardship of public goods would be met. Such principles are our guard against inappropriate action and cronyism. They are also the principles on which a viable and vibrant community can build. The positive outcomes of the Charrette process are undermined by action such as this, and in consequence we as a community are the poorer. Max Taylor