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April 22, 2015

No cure for the democracy addiction

You could be forgiven for thinking that democracy is like a flower that only blooms every few years, and that it’s all about the politicians and where to cast your vote. But real democracy is about the people deciding things for themselves, and in that sense it’s a bit like an addictive drug. Once the habit takes hold, you want and need more. Here’s an interesting perspective from two development trusts and self-confessed ‘democracy addicts’ on the public sector landscape around them.



The Grow Trust

A couple of weeks ago four Councils in Scotland announced they were pulling out of COSLA, the spokesperson at the time of the announcement was Councillor Mark MacMillan, Leader of Renfrewshire Council.

One of the reasons he stated for the split was Subsidiarity; a European principle whereby decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen. This is closely related to another principle that of Solidarity, when we really are in it together.

To ensure that these principles can produce what you want, the citizen, that’s you, needs power to do and resources to carry out the decisions.

Two excellent principles;    People in communities across Scotland from Lochside  Dumfries to Linwood, Renfrewshire from Beith, Ayrshire to Banff, Aberdeenshire really would have the right to make local decisions regarding their communities, have the power to spend money, decide priorities and work to achieve their plans for their future.

Our Councils could use their existing power to devolve powers to communities, there it is Subsidiarity in action, and work with and support communities, there’s that Solidarity.

Can’t be done!    So says the Council officials and Councillors, communities don’t have……. here it comes……….the capacity to do this, and the Council will, wait for it, work in partnership with other organisations to…yes you guessed it…. build the capacity of community organisations.

This capacity building which has turned into a near art form over the last thirty years is an endless stream of capacity building programmes and training.  Diligence and governance testing,   option assessments. The issuing of Directors accountability and transparency guidance. Strategic plans, business plans, succession plans and operational plans are endlessly produces. Public bodies issue policy documents, implementation plans and of course capacity building programmes.    An industry has mushroomed from this building of capacity.

What has been many Councils alternative approach to this lack of capacity?

They set up ALEOs. – Arm’s Length External Organisation

These new ALEOs Boards are in the control of appointees made by the Councils.    Service level agreements are drawn up by the recently transferred staff of the Council and Council officials.

Based on these agreements the Council pays the ALEOs.    The Councils also match fund lottery funding and other funding. Once established the Council say they have nothing to do with the running of them, the ALEOs are independent organisations.

The sound you hear in the background is the whole credibility of this set up being stretched to its limits. However, OSCR, the charities referee, and the local Councils are in agreement, these bodies are independent organisations.

A quick recap, an organisation, set up by Councils, comes into existence. With no track record of running services, (there’s that lack of capacity) buildings, services and budgets are handed over to them.

To ensure there is capacity. The Councils transfer staff, budgets and property to these organisations. Capacity deficit –  Problem Sorted!

What could it have been like if the Councils stopped and had a think before they set up these ALEOs? What could it have been like if the principles of Subsidiarity and Solidarity were used?

If the Councils applied the same capacity solution to communities what could have been done?

For assistance they could have re-read what Campbell Christie former chair of Falkirk FC and Union leader, said in his Commission’s report he urged Councils and public bodies to grasp the opportunity of greater community control and ownership, they could have looked a bit closer at the Community Empowerment bill which urges greater community control and ownership.

They may well have thought that some form of Community ownership could have been set up which was owned by community members and users of the services, local communities and the local Council all having their share. A very successful example being MONDRAGON in Spain.

Instead ALEOs were set up which are unaccountable to communities and whose facilities are now under their control.

In football parlance, the Councils parked the bus right across the goal line. As you can imagine this makes life very difficult for any community and their organisations to actually get something done.

The Council officials and Councillors stand with their arms spread wide in front of them, palms up pleading their innocence. Honestly ref we did nothing.

This doing nothing has been the real problem. To stop action, growth and change, those with power don’t have to do anything, they just don’t give any power up. In the confines of local democracy it becomes increasingly frustrating and energy sapping for community organisations to keep going.

When you keep going as organisations have done solutions do emerge to the sloped pitch, dubious tactics and the dodgy ref, and like all new ideas and solutions they need time and support to develop.

Beith Community Development Trust are in the process of stepping outside the Council controlled asset transfer bubble and buying their own property. Linwood Community Development Trust are in the final stage of an asset transfer of land from their Council.

What is interesting about these two approaches is that in the case of Beith the Council has no control over the process at all. In the case of Linwood there are no buildings involved they will build their own. Both face the unfair competition of ALEOs using their position and strength to come forward with plans which could undermine the plans of the two development Trusts.

The Trusts will succeed due to the support they have locally, their track record and the legislation which will shortly be introduced.

They are in a frame of mind where they are no longer willing to accept the status quo; they are no longer willing to merely tinker with a way of working which is broken, they are willing to deliver the change their communities want.

The Councils and other public bodies, if they continue on the road they are on will become irrelevant to communities who will not be willing to legitimate their Councils actions. That willingness is what local democracy is built on.

These public bodies if they are willing to build a new relationship with the communities they represent, and yes the dreaded capacity word can be used here, should send their Councillors and Officials on capacity building courses and programmes delivered and designed by their own communities. Emerging from this would be a different form of local democracy, a new relationship between communities and Councils which would embed the principles of Subsidiarity and Solidarity.

A better and more positive alternative to developing anymore unaccountable organisations which if the status quo is not changed may number the Councils themselves.

Keep on the right road.