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July 27, 2011

Push power downwards

There seem to be two separate and contradictory narratives dominating policy debates of the moment. One is driven by the pursuit for ever greater efficiencies and economies of scale within our public services and the other is characterised by a desire to make things more localised and empowering for communities.  Before too long, Scottish Government will need to decide which side of the fence it wants to stand on.  An article by Brian Monteith suggests it’s time our politicians took some risks

Brian Monteith

Give community groups budgets, give them responsibilities and they will come and they will serve, says Brian Monteith

Why can’t we let parish councils take on local planning decisions and maintain the environment?

The storm clouds are gathering over Scottish public services. Money is getting tighter while inflation is being tipped to reach 5 per cent next year. Apart from those creative thinkers at Reform Scotland, all the talk is of how we rationalise police forces, merge local councils, burn heretical quangos and look to do less – and do it centrally.

Contrast this with what will happen in England this week. As part of his localism agenda, where people can take more responsibility for their lives and their communities, David Cameron will advance his big idea of a Big Society by announcing the delegation of powers away from local authorities to local parish councils.

They will soon be able to decide upon the local parking arrangements, speed limits, the licensing hours of pubs in their villages or towns and – the issue that drives many people to distraction – local planning. They will be given cash budgets by their local councils and they will be able to consider local care for the elderly and children with special needs.

Imagine such powers being wrenched away from our 32 local authorities and given to our individual burgh towns like Peebles, Forres, Castle Douglas or Dunblane? In our cities, we could return the powers to the former burghs of Portobello, Leith or Maryhill or revitalise the neglected estates of Pollok, Hilltown and Wester Hailes.

It has been said in the past that our 1,200 community councils don’t have the capacity or leadership to take on such tasks. This is arrant nonsense. Our small towns and estates are full of very able people that already know how to run small businesses, trade union branches, church halls and local surgeries. By delivering real devolution to the people with real responsibilities, I would expect people to step forward and volunteer – the reason so many prefer not to is because our community councils have so few powers and can do so little to improve our neighbourhoods.

Give them budgets, give them responsibilities and they will come. And if there is a need to provide training, we should realise we already do it for countries like Malawi and Pakistan. It’s called “capacity building” and there’s no reason we cannot provide the same in Markinch and Plockton.

What’s to stop Scotland emulating such a change? Why can we not breathe a new spirit of local responsibility and civic pride into our communities? It may be something to do with Scotland being one of the most conservative democracies in Europe, maybe even the world.

Conservative in that our nation is resistant to change.

Yes, the people voted for devolution and a Scottish Parliament – but this was surely as a way for our nation to avoid change, rejecting the economic realities that Thatcher was forcing upon  a Britain that had in the Seventies become the laughing stock of the industrialised world. Ironically, it has meant that we also avoided many of the public service reforms that Blair delivered in England – with the evidence mounting that we have been left behind on educational attainment, cancer clear-up rates and other key public service outcomes.

Has a great deal changed since devolution arrived other than making services that were already in existence free – such as tuition fees, eye tests, bridge tolls, prescription charges, pensioners’ unlimited bus travel and personal care for the elderly? 

There has been change at the margins such as land reform, warrant sales and, after four reviews, the Scottish Arts Council changed its name, but do most people really feel empowered more, that they have a bigger say in what effects their daily lives and that they are listened to? I fear not.

Typical of this inability to confront change was the establishment and report of the Christie Commission that considered the reform of public services. It was populated by the Scottish Great and the Good holding honorary memberships of the MacChattering classes, the president of Cosla, a former moderator of the Church of Scotland, the commissioner for equality and human rights, the retired chief executive of West Lothian Council, et al. Was it any surprise that it has not shaken the tree?

The best it could do was urge the SNP government to “explore the potential” to “significantly improve community participation and design of public services” in its forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal bill. Explore? Why not do something?

Scotland remains trapped in its managerial culture, hemmed in by a civic society that speaks to itself and cannot stomach change unless it strengthens the hold of the managerial class.

Why can’t we let our parish councils – the community councils founded by statute – take on local planning decisions and maintain the local environment? Imagine the keen interest locally if people had a real say and real influence in the licensing hours of the local pubs and hotels. Imagine the civic pride that could return to our old burgh towns of Airdrie and Lanark.

Not only are we doing nothing, we are actually regressing. Last week, the Association of Scottish Community Councils announced it was folding after John Swinney cut its budget by 40 per cent for this year.

It’s all part of a trend – the SNP government can only think of reducing the number of police forces, to have a single state police, rather than breaking up the leviathan that is Strathclyde and making it accountable to its disparate local communities.

By devolving powers out to community councils that would not need salaried councillors or executives with expensive pay, perks and pensions, we could find savings, both in running costs and in contracting services locally.

Executed properly, with accountability to communities and checks on financial management, Cameron’s proposals have the potential to revolutionise English life. Politicians have been talking about localism and local democracy ever since the post-war state grew to dominate our lives, but it has all been eyewash. This will be David Cameron’s big test as it is not an event hitting him from left-field, but something he has put on the agenda himself. If he fails on this then his credibility will be worthless. It is an approach that we sorely need in Scotland and it’s not too late for the Scottish Government to make it their own.

Forget about independence for now, forget about centralism and think local. Give people the power to run their own communities and then their horizons can be widened. Let them change their neighbourhoods; if they feel they can do that then they might become less conservative and then, ironically, independence might not seem to so many a leap too far. Come on John, think again, think big, think local.