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December 14, 2016

Challenges for local democracy

For some months now, a loose coalition of organisations, campaigners and politicians have been coming together to work for an improved system of local democracy. Our Democracy is currently supporting communities across Scotland to hold their own Act As If You Own The Place Councils. Andy Wightman’s lecture (see above) was principally about how to strengthen local democracy. Towards the end of his lecture he set out six challenges that he felt would go some way towards achieving this. If you’d rather not trawl through the entire lecture, these particular challenges are laid out below. 


Andy Wightman MSP

In my view, organisations such as those represented here (SCVO) need to start  – and I know some have been doing this for some time – scaling up their level of engagement by going beyond the policy papers and the briefings to draft their own legislation – to engage in creative activism, subversive democracy, transparency initiatives and the unmasking of corporate power that will challenge the often complacent process of public policy-making and inject a bit of risk, danger, excitement and creative energy. Which leads me to some recommendations as to how we can deepen and strengthen democracy, hold power to account and create a new more local, engaging and relevant political debate.

1.            My first suggestion is therefore the establishment of a co-operative that will engage a network of trainers to deliver a series of modules and courses in creative activism, radical democracy, legislative expertise and para-parliamentary activity to communities, NGOs and others to empower them to engage and to pre-empt the conventional political processes of local and national governments and legislatures. We need a wiki-politics for Scotland.

2.            My second suggestion is to transform local democracy, to create in Scotland an exemplary framework of democratic engagement as close to the citizen as possible with real economic, fiscal and political power exercised at locality level. Again, Stephen (Maxwell) had much to say on this throughout his life and this remains substantial unfinished business.

3.            My third suggestion is to deepen economic democracy – for example by revitalising the mutual, co-operative and social enterprise sector – a sector that has and continues to deliver remarkable results but which remains still in the shadows. And we should be bold here too. For example, there will be a Bill this Parliament to complete the devolution of forestry. But Scotland is missing its targets for forestry expansion. What role might there be for a Scottish Forestry Co-op that could engage hundreds of thousands of people in a substantial programme of reforestation? Energy is the other obvious area in which this can and should be done and there are current good examples of this.

4.            My fourth suggestion is that however we move forward on local democracy, we need, just as Westminster and Holyrood have, a fiscal framework to govern the financial relations between Holyrood and local government and to provide predictability and clarity around fiscal transfers and powers. We need to get beyond the politics of the council tax freeze – a policy promoted by national politicians in the past who had no power or authority to deliver and had to effectively hold local government to ransom to implement it. This is a policy which, as I noted earlier, would be illegal in Germany.

5.            My fifth suggestion is to extend transparency in all areas of public life. To open up to free public inspection, for example, the registers of landownership and to create a public portal of information on all aspects of our land and environment so that there are no secrets anymore about the distribution of power and influence exercised over land ownership and use. Going further, I would require all public officials to publish their tax returns, to open to public inspection all bank accounts with balances of over, say £100,000, and to free up data by, for example removing Crown Copyright from our national mapping agency. The new economy will be built on information and data and it should as far as possible be made freely available to the citizen.


6.            My final suggestion is one you can all take up immediately. And that is to engage with the recently established Commission on Parliamentary Reform. This is the first substantial review of the workings of the Parliament and of how it might engage better with the people of Scotland whom it serves.