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by David O'Neill
03 December 2013
Picking your fight

Picking your fight

In his article about the Commission on Local Democracy in the last issue of Holyrood, Martin Sime got so much right; it’s a pity he got some things wrong.

As the President of COSLA and chair of this commission, I am slightly annoyed at some of the insinuations in that article, but on behalf of my fellow commissioners, I feel a much stronger sense of anger. Twenty people are giving up their own time to be members of a commission, working to a very tight timescale, to focus attention on real issues of localism and equalities which affect local communities in Scotland. The suggestion that they have all been duped into dancing to COSLA’s tune is ridiculous and insulting, and on their behalf, I am determined to set the record straight.

We should be clear from the start, this commission is about local democracy, not about local government and we in COSLA understand these are two fundamentally different things.
Let us be clear, ‘the fight’ in this country must not be between some of those with a localist view and others with a similar view but a different role in that process. The fight is to create a space for localism to work at all. The commission is concerned there is a centralising tendency in Scotland. It must be music to the ears of those who promote that approach to hear of disagreement and cynicism amongst those who promote a localist alternative.

The focus of the commission is not on bolstering local government, promoting or protecting our boundaries, or trying to grab new powers. It is to prove a long-held value that greater local democracy delivers better outcomes for local people.

COSLA believes that to address long-term inequalities in health, education, the job market and longevity, only a localist approach will deliver real results. We have tried top-down centralisation throughout recent decades and it fails to resolve these issues. If there is, as Mr Sime suggests, opportunistic use being made of the forthcoming referendum, it is two-fold. Firstly, it is to point out that this is a debate about further devolution and subsidiarity but it has not yet looked below the national picture. Secondly, it is to focus attention on genuinely showing a commitment to solving Scotland’s long-term problems and delivering better outcomes for local people that must be the effect of whatever settlement is chosen.

It is unclear from Mr Sime’s article what benefit he thinks COSLA is surreptitiously trying to gain under the cover of a commission which he believes is loaded in a particular direction. So far, the commission has discussed papers on the state of local democracy in this country compared to other countries in Europe, and the state of local democracy in Scotland over time. It has debated the extent to which it is possible to demonstrate a connection between the quality of local democracy and the quality of outcomes for local people. The commission is about to take ‘evidence’ from members of the public, Scottish institutions, third sector organisations, etc that constitute civic Scotland, and it is only after that information is all gathered together that any conclusions will be drawn. There are no pre-ordained conclusions from this commission and the process is not being managed in order to deliver a certain result.

As chair, I have made it absolutely clear that the whole function of the commission is to examine in detail the debate about the level, form and function of local democracy in Scotland and the way that this affects the outcomes for local people. It is this debate about real changes to people’s lives that COSLA and others feel has failed to be addressed at a very high level, in the often polarised discussion regarding the referendum.

In setting up the commission, COSLA took the risk that the discussions of the commissioners, coupled with the evidence and information we gather from the public and other sources, may lead to conclusions that local government may find difficult. To ensure that this was a possibility and that such independence of thought would be protected, the whole commission arrangement has an independence from COSLA’s day to day work and it has an equal number of members who are not from local government.

It is fully understood that within a more locally driven Scotland, there are issues about community representation, third sector organisations, participative democracy and representative democracy which have to be carefully worked through, and it is unlikely that the way we do things now will be deemed to be entirely right for the new situation post-referendum. The real question is whether those of us who support localism are so concerned about an internecine fight between us that we lose the concept of localism altogether, and that a top-down centralised Scotland is the result of that disagreement. Surely, we can all set aside often long-held entrenched positions regarding our views of each other for long enough to turn this debate regarding independence on its head.

The question in Scotland should not be what the new governmental arrangements in Scotland will do post-referendum to promote localism, but rather, how do we allow the people of Scotland to select the right form of government arrangement to ensure that local democracy and the delivery of services within that local democratic framework allows them to flourish.

A last point of disagreement regarding Mr Sime’s position is that while it is accepted that local democracy and local government are not the same thing, one of the key essences of a genuinely local democratic process is elected representation through some system of local government. It would be inconceivable that a debate on local democracy and localism would not focus, to some extent, on its institutions. The importance of these institutions should not be ignored and Mr Sime’s apparent wish to avoid a debate about local government in that context is naive, poorly judged and in the end, quite cynical.

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