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March 7, 2012

Small Works


Ask any political party for their views about decentralising resources and decision making away from government and without exception the response will be broadly the same – enthusiastic support for the principle but always light on the detail of how to achieve it. Rob Gibson, MSP has some specific ideas as to how this might be achieved in the Highlands. He has written short paper called Small Works.



Rob Gibson MSP


I have served the various communities that make up my vast constituency for most of my professional life. I know them well, and I know the many opportunities and challenges life in the Highlands can throw up. These communities are distinctive – they require distinctive local government. 

There is a strong and urgent case to be made for local government reform in the Highlands. One single unitary authority cannot possibly work for local interests when it covers the area of a small European country. The Highland Council’s current geographical size is harming local democracy and holding back local economic growth. 

In this short paper, I want to propose a solution to this democratic deficit that some might term ‘bold’ or ‘radical’, but is actually the norm in the rest of Europe. In Norway, it is perfectly normal for communities to have substantial control over service delivery – it is a major factor in driving successful rural economies there. 

It is my ambition to see this decentralisation in action during my time as MSP for Caithness Sutherland & Ross. 

I was elected with nearly 50% of the vote in this constituency on a decentralist-platform. People in every corner of this constituency are eager for more control over services – my ‘Small Works’ consultation paper showed overwhelming support in urban and rural areas, north and south, east and west. Highland residents are growing louder and louder in their demand for local control, and I will ensure their calls are heard at every level of government. 



Attracting investment. 

In competitive economic times, communities will prove to act as the most passionate advocates for their area. Community-controlled local authority units [CCLAUs] will work to attract business and jobs, and will determine a plan for local economic growth that will best suit that area’s peculiarities. With major investment in wind and tidal energy fabrication and deployment on the horizon, CCLAUs will work hard to reap maximum community benefit from these nationally-important projects. 

Where a community works together to improve quality of life, it helps create an attractive and enticing place to visit, do business and invest. 

Control over licensing will ensure local business priorities are heard, and allow for communities to develop destination tourism strategies to attract more visitors. 

Control over economic development will give SMEs more local input, and put communities in the driving seat of their own economic future. 

Protecting and improving services. 

Decentralisation will protect rural schools from closure. During a time of difficult spending decisions, communities should determine priorities. 

CCLAUs will be able to offer community solutions to service delivery challenges, such as waste management. CCLAUs will support community environmental initiatives, such as Golspie GREAN. 

Action to tackle housing shortages will be better executed by CCLAUs who are familiar with local housing stocks. Local bodies will be better placed to work creatively to make more affordable properties available for lease or sale. 

Localised control of community health management will give patients more input into quality of care management and the generally running of local outpatient services. It will positively and dramatically democratise the NHS. 

Decentralisation of culture, leisure and sport will protect recreational services, and address the any geographical cultural differences in the Highlands. 

Community-driven solutions will address spending issues and service delivery challenges based on local need, not regional strategic compromise. 

To enhance our democracy. 

“The Highlands are too vast to be run from Inverness.” 

The Highland Council area takes in a total of eight counties, stretching from one end of Scotland to the other. Each county faces different challenges, and its communities require unique support. At a bureaucratic level, officials based centrally in the Highlands have little if any day-ta-day experience of the life in the area’s rural and urban geographical extremities. To add to this, representatives are expected to rule on planning applications and policy for wards many hundreds of miles from their own. This has led to a democratic deficit in the Highlands, which decentralisation will address. 

Decentralising planning legislation will ensure that important local planning matters are dealt with by those who know the needs of the community best – it’s residents. A representative from Lochaber should not be allowed to rule on a local application in Caithness, and visa-versa. 

Electing more local representatives in addition to Highland Councillors will increase local accountability and enhance local democracy. Community councils provide a platform to air local views, and have provided democratic empowerment to communities in the past, but without any substantive control over local service delivery they serve little purpose. 

Decentralisation will give our rural and urban extremities a stronger voice in the Highland Council. With enhanced local representation, communities will find themselves in a more advantageous position to seek the social and economic support they need, as is the norm in Scandinavia and northern Europe. 

A vision for improved local democracy. 

Communities should elect local representatives to run effective, relatable and accountable authorities. CCLAUs should work in co-operation with the Highland Council, who should retain control over services where there are shared regional priorities. 

The boundaries for new, localised authorities should be determined in consultation with community bodies. Population should not be the major driving factor when determining these new boundaries, as is the case in France. This would leave room for urban and rural local government units of equal size. 

Localised authorities should work within a policy framework set by the Scottish Government, but should be given adequate scope to work creatively in the communities’ particular interests, as in Northern Europe. Newly elected local representatives would work with Highland Councillors on local cases. 

Decentralisation would see managers and officers base themselves in every corner of the Highlands, improving accountability.