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May 7, 2014

Reversing 50 years of centralisation

When COSLA launched its Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, many believed it would amount to little more than a defence of the increasingly untenable claim by Scotland’s local authorities that local democracy was safe in their hands. Not so, if the Commission’s interim report is anything to go by. After gathering evidence from far and wide, the Commission hasn’t pulled any punches with its initial findings. Whether any of these ideas see the light of day is another matter but in the meantime it would be interesting to hear what Scottish Government thinks of it.



Commission on Strengthen Local Democracy

To read the interim report – Time to reverse 50 years of centralisation – click here 

Report Summary

This report is a rallying call for stronger local democracy in Scotland. It is an initial perspective on the host of evidence that we have received, and we acknowledge that our thinking needs to grow and develop. In that sense, this is the beginning of an exciting new conversation.

The nature of that conversation, however, is becoming clear. We have heard that local democracy matters, and that it is valued. We have also heard that democracy works best when it is meaningful and accessible.

In this report we suggest that making Scotland a fairer, healthier and wealthier place is therefore unlikely to be achieved without a stronger local democracy in which people can see how decisions are made, and feel engaged and in control.

We have put forward a view that for democracy to have true meaning and value it has to be built from the bottom up, not designed from the top down. It must happen where people experience their lives, and let local people decide on their priorities, their services, and their spending. Yet we’ve learned that Scotland has been on a 50 year journey of centralisation in which more rather than less powers tend to have been taken to the centre by the Government of the day, and in which there has been an ongoing reduction in representation of communities through local democracy and the creation of bigger and bigger units of local governance. One consequence may be that as a country we have simply become used to a culture that doesn’t empower people locally. We have an ethos where the default position is that for something to be delivered efficiently is has to be centralised, for national outcomes to be achieved, national agencies have to be created, and where local discretion is available, this is often seen as a postcode lottery rather than legitimate local choice and local democratic accountability. This culture has gained such credence that only a very major initiative can alterthe direction of travel.

As a Commission, we have worked hard to eschew that mind-set. As a country, we also need to relearn the ambition and know how to take on powers and responsibilities. This is beginning to change, and ideas of democracy with it

Part of the solution may be to empower local democratic institutions. But to us positive change is perhaps less about specific mechanisms or processes than it is about culture and understanding. It is about enabling, not prescribing shape or structure. Effective solutions will surely follow from getting the conditions right but may not happen at all if we get them wrong.

We have also heard a lot about who is best placed to make tough decisions and to get the best from finite resources. We believe the solution is about bringing government closer to people. Representative and participatory democracy can be complementary rather than competitive drivers for change. Across western democracies, local authorities have a wider range of powers and responsibilities than in Scotland and these are often increasing. But so too are they demonstrably much more local. We should seek the benefits of localism in Scotland, within a framework of rights and standards, but that can only be the case if it is matched by a push down of powers below the level of local authorities too. This isn’t something to be done uniformly, but should allow communities that want it opportunity to shape or take charge in their area.

Viewed through that lens, it is clear why representative local democracy has such a complex role. It needs to ensure that citizens and communities get the people they want to represent them and be accountable for decisions on their behalf. It also needs to empower community capacity and enable communities to share decision making and control. It also has elements that can only be done by national democratic institutions for the whole country, including the rights and standards citizens have, and ensuring fair distribution of resources.

In that light, we suggest that effective and strong local democracy must involve:

1 Changing the way we think about democracy. Strong local democracy must be about more than a trickle of powers from national government, to councils and only then to communities- all instigated and controlled from above. It should mean accepting that strong local democracy cannot be designed from the top down and that it must be empowered from the bottom up.

2 Recognising that strong democracy is both participatory and representative

Genuinely strong local democracy requires many voices, and different and exciting new forms of expression. Participation and representation are not different standards of democracy to compete with one another in this. Scotland’s approach must therefore evolve so that both can prosper and fulfil their parts.

3 Empowering services and decision making that is fit for communities

Scotland is a diverse country. Outcomes are most sensibly improved by focussing on what works locally and what communities need, and by strengthening choice and control for local people. Asymmetry – functions, powers and structures that reflect the diversity of local areas and the people that live there- is necessary because contexts, priorities and aspirations vary across Scotland. Local variation rather than standardisation, within a framework of rights, should therefore be a positive consequence of a strong democracy.

4 Fiscal empowerment to deliver outcomes

Greater fiscal decentralisation is needed so that 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 other modern democracies.

Our report is therefore a package and we want to use it to set the scene for a potentially profound change. Local democracy can only be strengthened by looking at the whole system of governance, not “local” governance in isolation. As we move into the next stage of our work, we can see that enabling strong local democracy will call for a new ideology in Scotland; a positive culture of collaboration in which everyone with a stake in the improvement of local outcomes – local and national government, agencies, the third sector, and communities – is empowered and energised to fulfil their part.

The opportunity is for strong democracy to become an eco-system in which every sphere of democracy is reinforced, developed and enabled by the spheres that surround it, and in which the touchstones are empowerment, confidence and trust, not territorialism or competition.

Change is already taking place in different ways and at different speeds, and we must nurture positive developments, build on these, and make them the default.

 Of course, there are difficulties in this. There is a need to fit within priorities for the whole of Scotland; ensure that individuals’ rights are protected; ensure that resources are fairly distributed;and deal with services that do not fit with a very local approach. Our view in the Commission, however, is that these difficulties can be overcome by a sensible approach to collaboration, by setting strong standards, and by a pragmatic approach which accepts that bottom up aggregation and cooperation will be necessary to deliver efficiency.

We have a great opportunity to think through these wider questions about power and citizenship and to rebuild local democracy. That is why we have put forward a view that Scotland should be as interested in sharing power locally as it is in transfers of power between the Westminster and Holyrood. And throughout all of this, we must keep our eye on the prize- better outcomes for local people. By working together, we can create the conditions to reignite local empowerment and participation, and give people back a real local voice. To embrace this will mean wrestling with a radical new culture where subsidiarity means something real and the whole framework of public service is deemed to be bottom up rather than top down. Scotland is capable of that change and that is why we are asking others to get behind this approach and use theirinfluence and skills to help us develop and shape it.We look forward to the debate that lies ahead; because one thing is for sure – together we have a duty to get this right for the people of Scotland.