August 22, 2018
Protecting local democracy
Our local councils get a lot of stick. While some of the criticism might be justified, much of it isn’t. Indeed they rarely if ever attract praise for any of the complex range of services that they deliver with great efficiency. So while we may not love our councils, we might just pause to consider how we would cope if they weren’t there or if they were substantially diminished in some way. Andy Wightman MSP has been concerned for some time at erosion of local democracy and is proposing a Private Members Bill in the Scottish Parliament to give more statutory protection to our councils.
The strength of free peoples lies in the municipality. Municipal institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to learning; they put it within easy reach of the people; they let it taste its peaceful exercise and accustom them to making use of it. Without municipal institutions a nation can give itself a free government, but it will not have the spirit of liberty. Alex de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
Scotland’s local government has a long and varied history since the 12th century when the first Royal Burghs were established. These local institutions and the later parishes, counties, districts and regions have provided the people of Scotland with the most local and continuous governance of many of the things that matter most to them.
Over the past century, however, the status, powers and freedoms of local government have been slowly eroded and marginalised. Governments of all persuasions have tended to assume that the answer to providing more effective public services is to exercise power and control from the centre. At the same time, whole spheres of local governance (such as Scotland’s former 196 town councils) have been eliminated.
Over the 19 years since the Scottish Parliament was established, local democracy has been seen as the unfinished business of devolution. Whilst not all agree on the specifics, there is a growing political consensus that the challenges and opportunities facing communities across Scotland require more local solutions.
That’s why I believe that we need to deepen and strengthen our system of local governance and this proposed Member’s Bill is a step along that road.
As the McIntosh Commission on Local Government noted in 1999:
“It could be said that Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do. The 32 councils now existing are, in effect, what in other countries are called county councils or provinces” 1
In 2013, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) argued that:
“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 these councils and their services are constitutionally protected and their funding secured by law, even with regard to national policy making.”
It was in this context that COSLA established the cross-party Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy.3 In its final report, published in August 2014, it recommended that all of the articles of the European Charter of Local Self Government (hereafter referred to as the Charter) be incorporated into the law of Scotland.
The Charter is a Council of Europe treaty, ratified by the UK in 1998, which seeks to enshrine a series of legal rights for local government. Incorporating the Charter into Scots law would strengthen the constitutional role of local government and provide citizens with a domestic remedy in the event that the provisions of the Charter were being violated.