April 6, 2016
A Highland Commission
With elections on the horizon, it won’t be long before civil servants and policy anoraks start to pour over the pledges that all the parties set out in their manifestos. On the last day of Parliament, the First Minister hinted that the SNP manifesto might contain a commitment to address the country’s enduring deficit in local democracy. Irrespective of that, change in this direction is becoming inevitable. Highland Council, building on the recent work of Cosla, has announced the launch of its own Commission for Highland Democracy
Agenda – 10th March 2016
Proposal to Establish a Commission on Highland Democracy
1.1 The Highland Council has taken a keen interest in the work of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and the report it published in 2014: ‘Effective Democracy: Reconnecting with Communities’ . The Council debated the report at the Council meetings on 30th October 2014 and 12th March 2015.
1.2 The report contained 25 recommendations. They are appended. Most require consideration nationally (some now feature in the Community Empowerment legislation) and others are aimed at local government and Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs). For local government it is recommended that Councils revisit their scheme of decentralisation and adopt a process of participatory budgeting. For CPPs it is recommended that CPPs work with communities to design and implement a clear empowerment scheme and that they develop an approach to community scrutiny to complement existing arrangements.
1.3 Importantly the Commission saw its work as the start of a process and called for new conversations to rebuild democracy, and for that to bring in many voices and perspectives ‘..to come together to learn, challenge, and explore inspiring ideas. To be effective that must be genuinely inclusive of communities of interest and place, and with cross party buy in.’ (p37) The Commission sees the work required as a long term endeavour, over a 10 to 15 year period and called for new democratic experiments across Scotland.
1.4 From March to December 2015 strengthening local democracy has been raised at every Council meeting. In October 2015 Members agreed a localism action plan that includes:
• The establishment of seven new local committees with new and emerging local powersi . They will all have met for the first time by the time of the Council meeting in March 2016.
• New joint work with partners to develop local community planning arrangements.
• Trialling participatory budgeting (PB) in several locations. By the end of March 2016 PB will have taken place using ward discretionary budgets in Lochaber, Caithness and Nairn, with events being planned for Sutherland, Skye, Inverness West and possibly Badenoch and Strathspey. A masterclass for Members is scheduled for the afternoon of 24th March 2016.
• Establishing a strategic Committee for Communities and Partnerships with a remit that includes overseeing the approach to implementing the new duties on the Council arising from the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, 2015.
• A programme of work to implement the Act including how to respond well to participation requests from community bodies and supporting asset transfers to community organisations.
• Developing transformation projects that support community participation in service delivery.
• The development of a training programme for staff, partners and Members to support local community planning and new public participation methods.
• Campaigning activity that seeks further devolution of power to Highland including providing views on a proposed Islands Bill, Scotland Bill and Land Reform Bill and supporting the Seven Cities Strategy and City/Region Deal.
1.5 At the December 2015 Council meeting the first revisions to the Scheme of Delegation were agreed and Members noted that a proposal for a Highland Commission on Democracy would be brought back for consideration.
1.6 All of these actions support the commitments in the Highland First Programme to strengthen local democracy, empower communities including in the running of services and develop local community planning.
1.7 The Highland Community Planning Partnership also has a commitment to engage in dialogue with communities in order to empower them to participate in service planning and delivery. It has new duties arising from the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 to involve people and communities in decisions affecting them.
1.8 It is worth noting that there is appetite among the Highland public for greater involvement in decisions that affect them. In 2014 the results from the Council’s Citizens’ Panel showed that:
• 77% were interested in the democratic process;
• 69% would like to be involved in decisions-making in their area or in the country; and
• 48% agreed that every citizen should get involved in democracy if it is to work properly However the survey also showed that:
• only 20% agree that the Council involves people in how it spends money; and
• only 18% feel they have any influence over decision-making in their local area.
2. Proposal for a Commission on Highland Democracy
2.1 It is proposed that the Highland Commission would follow up the national Commission’s recommendation to continue conversations locally about the kind of democracy we want to have in the Highlands. This could include gathering a wide range of views from communities, community councils and community organisations on how best to enable public participation in decisions about public services and how to encourage good democratic practise. It could help to inform the development of the Council’s localism action plan and generate increased public interest and turnout in elections.
2.2 The questions the Commission could pose might include:
1. Are the current and new arrangements the best arrangements for community choice and voice in Council decision-making and, if not, what alternatives would communities wish to see?
2. What is engagement like with other public bodies and do communities seek to engage differently with them?
3. Specifically, if change is necessary, is it to the spatial scale and empowerment of local decision making; is it about making the process more accessible and “user friendly” to communities; is it about ensuring no-one is excluded; is it about attitudes, behaviour and practice; or is it about other factors (such as financial constraint)?
4. Do communities feel well supported to participate, and do they feel that their participation would actually have an impact? If not, what support and facilitation would be necessary to give communities the confidence that participation is possible and worthwhile?
5. Do communities want to be more directly involved in the running of local facilities and public services and, if so, what sort of involvement do they want and what sort of support do they need?
6. More broadly, what can we learn from research and international evidence on areas similar to the Highlands about innovative and effective models for decentralisation, public participation and community empowerment?
2.3 The views gathered on these questions could offer insight not only to the Council in how it should operate but also to others, including Community Councils, our community planning partners (public bodies and third sector organisations) and potentially influence policy at a national level. The Council has an ambition to be at the forefront of bringing democracy closer to communities and the Commission would support this aim.
2.4 Following the example of the Commission nationally it is proposed that up to 15 Commissioners with a range of perspectives would be appointed to explore these issues with communities across the Highlands. These would not have to be paid positions.
2.5 The Council Leader has engaged Rory Mair CBE, the former Chief Executive of Cosla and resident of the Highlands, to develop the Commission proposals further. As part of this he will liaise with Group Leaders to discuss a range of issues around the establishment of the Commission, including the identification of potential Commissioners. He will also engage with external stakeholders, especially community planning partners.
2.6 A number of key issues will be explored in the course of this engagement, including:
• What should the provenance of the Commission be and who would it report to?
• How independent should the Commission be, or need to be?
• How should the Commission’s proposals inform the Council’s new design work?
• How to involve our community planning partners in supporting and engaging with the Commission, potentially to affecting their current practice too?
• Would the Scottish Government be interested in supporting it?
• Are there other issues for the Commission to explore?
• Are there areas that should be out of scope for consideration?
• How would Commissioners be selected and to reflect diversity?
• How should the Commission be resourced?
2.7 A further report providing members with an update on progress will be brought to Council in May.