Power to the people
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, launched last month, is a rather odd creature. It has a remit to identify a route map to deliver the full benefits of a shift in power towards local democracy for people in Scotland. What could be less contentious?
Unfortunately, all is not quite what it seems. Firstly, in terms of positioning and timing, it is not at all clear whether this commission is a counterweight to the referendum debate or an adjunct to it. Would independence actually assist in delivering the commission’s remit or is this just another political broadside aimed at the Scottish Government? The timing seems suspicious.
The opening set of papers has much to say about ‘local’ people and ‘local’ services. The introduction even goes so far as to promote activity which would “benefit local people most” – a completely meaningless expression. Such casual jargon is not promising.
This commission is the equivalent of our local government leaders out on manoeuvres, with a very thin veneer of outside help. It is housed and supported by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), its members appointed by the President, who also chairs the commission. It seems a stretch to think that challenging new thinking can emerge from such a vested interest.
An immediate faultline is the conflation of local democracy with the current structure and practice of local government when the two are manifestly not the same thing. Scotland has some of the largest local government units in the western world, certainly much too big to be meaningfully local. There are many who claim that our democracy suffers from precisely this lack of localism, yet the commission is tasked with improving the constitutional/statutory position of Scottish local government. It seems that the commission already has the answer to hand before its work has even begun.
Of course, the narrative is all about more powers (and money) to councils, rather than being about a genuine transfer of power to people. It’s a constant and utterly predictable refrain, made without evidence of the benefits which such transfers might bring. The Concordat liberated local government to make its own decisions and to set its own priorities, but here we are only a few years down the road and the talk is all about challenging centralisation.
Don’t get me wrong, local democracy could and should play a significant role in the governance of Scotland. But only 20 per cent of voters could be bothered to turn out in the recent Govan by-election, which is not much of a democracy. Council elections never seem to set the heather on fire, so the idea that more power and resources to councils will improve democracy is simply unsupported by the facts. In fact the story of the last 15 years suggests the opposite – more money than ever before going to councils but falling numbers going to the polls to elect their councillor.
We probably do need to think a little differently about what the purpose of local government is whatever the outcome of the referendum. Should we follow Scandinavia and have hundreds of very local councils? Or would fewer of them be more efficient and reduce costs?
If people can make active choices for themselves do we really need 32 different approaches, costs and gatekeepers?
In truth, local government in Scotland has always been hopelessly compromised between its representative and service-providing roles. The commission talks about “making sure that services reflect what communities want” but there’s not been a lot of effort in this direction.
In any case, these sentiments sound old-fashioned when we should be focusing on people leading their own communities and working to their own priorities. This is the approach which is gradually replacing the dead hand of municipalism, however, well-intentioned its origins. It means putting people who use services in charge of their own budgets and service delivery, and supporting people to help themselves and each other.
People are any community’s greatest asset and they should be appreciated for their ability to transform the human, social and environmental elements of their communities, but we simply don’t see this play out in practice.
Take community planning as an example. By most accounts, it has involved neither of the words in its title and tends to be more about inter-agency negotiation than bottom-up citizen engagement.
I doubt the commission can escape its patrons and produce a radical vision to establish a genuinely local authority and democracy to fit post-referendum Scotland, but I’ll be very happy to stand corrected.