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August 28, 2013

COSLA acknowledges local democracy is weak

An intriguing paper has been published by COSLA which sets out a vision for stronger local democracy in Scotland. Intriguing because the paper comes tantalisingly close to making the case for local government reorganisation.  It also argues that devolution of power mustn’t stop at Holyrood or with councils but that communities must be truly empowered if democracy is to be renewed. All a bit short on detail but encouraging nonetheless.


Extract from COSLA’s vision for stronger local democracy in Scotland.

To see a full version click here

Local democracy is weak compared to Europe

Our starting point is to develop a new understanding of how all parts of government should work.

Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is no coincidence that our European neighbours are often more successful at improving outcomes, and have much greater turn out at elections.

We cannot hope to emulate the success of these countries without acknowledging that they have more local councils, local elected councillors represent fewer people, and that these councils and their services are constitutionally protected and their funding secured by law, even with regard to national policy making.

We should seek the same benefit, and the same independence that local government has in most western democracies.

Outcomes not size should drive decision making

Some might speculate that only a smaller number of larger councils can deliver this scale and strategic importance.

That asks the wrong question. Not only are many of Scotland’s councils large by international comparison, but the record of our smaller councils already speaks for itself. In addition, where it makes sense, councils already operate jointly to deliver services. But that must be a local decision, driven by the local needs of local communities.

Local democracy has a price, but it also has a value which is worth paying for. In fact, too many public services have little or no local democratic control through Scotland’s councils, such as public health, economic development and the welfare system. The real focus should be on bringing power closer to communities, not the size of councils.

Devolution does not stop at Holyrood or with councils

Our vision for local government is not a one way street. Just as we believe that national government can be distant, and prone to centralising rather than devolvingsome may think the same of us. If we want empowerment for local government, we must empower communities too. Local people must be valued, they must be engaged and they must have a real say in how services are designed and delivered.

What local government does should be as well understood, protected and supported as the role of national government, but that means that local people and communities should be empowered just as much in local policy making.