Published: 07/10/2011 11:00 - Updated: 07/10/2011 10:57

An apathetic time for local democracy

THE response to calls for nominations to Highland community councils does little to inspire confidence that there will be any dramatic change in the influence wielded by the grassroots bodies.

In Ross-shire, as across much of the Highlands, it has been a struggle to get enough people to form community councils, let alone force elections. That's not great news for local democracy, painting a picture of stagnation, disinterest and general apathy.

In many cases, the same small number of people will be returned uncontested to bodies which already have an inferiority complex about their level of influence in getting things done and influencing change higher up the line.

The Macintosh Report on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament said of community councils, "There is much complaint about elections to community councils, mainly that they are very poorly supported, so much so that places often have to be filled by co-option afterwards. It is understandable that councils are reluctant to give much credence to the representations of bodies which are patently not representative; but the remedy lies largely in councils' own hands, by taking steps and allocating resources to publicise and facilitate community council elections.

"There have been some encouraging experiments with postal voting and electronic voting, which suggest that it is possible at reasonable cost to increase the turnout at community council elections significantly and even dramatically. We note too that, since community council elections are not governed by the Representation of the People Act, it is possible to lower the age of voting in them: this opens up an important opportunity to engage younger people in civic affairs."

Highland Council, which has sometimes been criticised as being dismissive of community councils has, to be fair, publicised these elections and said all of the right things about the role they can play. They're supposed to be sounding boards for local opinion, bodies with their ears close to the ground. There has been a lot of talk about the importance of community councils in a local government climate of cutbacks and economic uncertainty. Unfortunately the level of interest expressed in being part of this supposed wellspring of local democracy suggests the few will have their work cut out.

It's a pity so few elections will be required come November but hardly surprising. But let's not be too gloomy. There are a number out there which are comprised of dedicated, hard-working individuals united by a desire to make things better for their communities. These are people who give of their time freely with precious little thanks. It was ever thus.

* WHILE each new week seems to bring another gloomy portent of the economic outlook, one of Scotland's great industries goes from strength to strength thanks in large part to booming demand in some massive global markets.

You don't have to look too far for an indication of Scotch whisky's relative buoyancy with two great brands this week waxing lyrical about their newly revamped Ross-shire visitor centres.

While there are people out there willing to fork out £125,000 for a single bottle of a particularly prized drop, it's not just the super-rich who are developing a taste for a dram.

That's good news for Easter Ross distilleries like Glenmorangie and Dalmore which are both hoping for a surge in visitor numbers following major investment in their sites at Tain and Alness.

The new developments are particularly welcome given that Easter Ross as a whole is looking to up the ante as a visitor destination. With emerging markets like China and India showing a taste for some of our finest malts, its not beyond the realms of possibility that the Ross-shire facilities could soon be welcoming some far-flung visitors keen to discover for themselves some of the secrets of their favourite drams. With the Balblair distillery also putting the finishing touches to a revamped visitor centre just a little up the road from Tain, there's surely the makings of a whisky trail of our own?

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