Scottish local democracy has been “dismantled”, commission claims
Scottish local authorities are too remote from their communities and have too little power, according to a new report.
Scotland would be “fairer, wealthier and healthier” if local communities had control over the issues that matter to them, according to Scotland’s first Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. The commission, which was set up by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and features a number of experts from across civic life, also found local democracy in Scotland has been “gradually dismantled” over the last 50 years.
It said Scotland is now one of the most centralised countries in the western world. David O’Neill, chairman of the commission and president of COSLA, said: “Scotland has a proud and important tradition of deciding on things locally. But local democracy is now under real pressure in this country.
“Over the decades, we’ve seen a culture in which more and more services and decisions have been taken away from local communities and put into the hands of distant bureaucracies.
“As a country, we have got so used to this approach that we’ve come to think of it as the only way to improve public services, even though that has meant that for most people decisions are now taken far away from where they live their lives.”
The independent commission, set up to look at how communities could be given a stronger say over public services, published its interim findings last week.
It argued Scotland will never be a fairer, healthier or wealthier place unless people can see how decisions are made and feel in control. It also stated that greater fiscal decentralisation is required so local communities are “empowered to participate in and inform choices about the public services they want and how these will be funded”.
“Reinvigorating local democracy means having the same freedom to reflect local choices about tax and spend in Scotland that already exist in most modern democracies.”
Compared to those in many other European countries, the commission said Scotland’s 32 councils are too remote from the people they serve. Sweden, with a population twice that of Scotland, has 290 councils while Finland, with a population roughly the same as Scotland, has 320.
O’Neill added: “Whatever the result of the referendum, we’ve therefore got a huge opportunity to think about the kind of country that we want to live in, and make sure that there is a lasting local legacy for local communities in Scotland. Strong local democracy needs much more than a trickle down of powers from national government, to councils and only then to communities. Instead, we need to rethink local democracy from the bottom up.”
Minister for Local Government Derek Mackay said the Scottish Government supports subsidiarity and local decision making, and believes the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about the country’s future.
He added: “We are already taking steps to give communities greater opportunities to influence and take control of their own future through the Community Empowerment Bill.”