May 29, 2019
When the Local Governance Review was launched in 2017, the timetable (assuming the outcome of the Review confirmed an appetite for significant change) suggested that draft legislation might be introduced this summer. While the feedback from the 4000+ respondents was very positive, it also highlighted the complexity of the challenge and the importance of taking sufficient time to consider what happens next. This next phase will allow for that further reflection to happen and for some of the ideas from the earlier phase to be developed. Scottish Community Alliance submitted this idea as part of its overall contribution.
Democracy Matters – a response from Scottish Community Alliance
Proposal for new tier of local governance – The Local Assembly
The democratic gap
The system of local government that has prevailed for over 20 years is one of 32 large units, most of which have evolved, with some variation, more locally and decentralized structures often linked with Community Planning Partnerships. While these more localized structures are closer in a geographical sense to communities, they remain without exception under the control of the local authority.
At some distance from these formal structures of local government are the myriad local organisations that comprise the community and voluntary sector. Where these are most developed, recognizable community anchor organisations have emerged to take on some responsibilities of local civic leadership and the delivery of some public services. In some parts of the country, local authorities have recognized the contribution of these community anchors and have devolved a measure of responsibility and resource accordingly. Where these relationships exist they are typically informal and ad hoc.
The democratic gap is not just a function of physical distance, it is also one of trust and credibility. If local democracy, as we currently understand it, is to be reimagined without being formally restructured, something other than culture change and capacity building on all sides will be required. In very broad terms, there are effectively two dominant narratives at work. We in the community sector complain about a top-down, municipalist culture that predominates in local authorities and have long called for a shift in that mindset as a prerequisite for communities to be able to fulfil their potential. Equally, local authorities have long questioned the community sector’s competence and capacity to deliver what we say we want to do. The councils do not have sufficient confidence in the community sector’s capacity to take responsibility for functions currently undertaken by councils. They do not believe we have the skills, capacity or the resources necessary. These two narratives have created an impasse and it is this impasse that needs to be shifted.
In addition, there is a perennial tension that exists between the perceived democratic legitimacy of an elected representative body (such as a local council) and the popular authority that flows from widespread participatory civic action. Both are legitimate forms of power and are seen by some as oppositional and by others as complimentary.
Bridging the democratic gap – the Local Assembly
If we are to break through this impasse, some new democratic form, a hybrid that draws on elements and characteristics from both sides of the democratic gap, may be required to sit in that civic space between our participative and representative processes. If the object of the Local Governance Review is to be achieved, if power is to pass from the current structures to a lower, more local level, there needs to be some form of widely recognizable ‘vehicle’ to vest this power and authority in. This paper considers the option of creating a new, democratic hybrid, the Local Assembly, that would meld elements of the existing formal systems of local governance (local councils, community councils) with the many and variable expressions of participatory democracy that are already well established at a community level.
Issues to consider in relation to the formation of a Local Assembly
1. Voter mandate. The way we conceive of the community and voluntary sector is that it doesn’t draw its local legitimacy from being ‘representative’ of the local community. Its credibility is derived from actions on the ground. The Local Assembly, however will need to demonstrate a degree of electoral support in order to assume direct control of decision making and public resources. The extent of ‘ballot box’ support that is secured from the registered electorate could be used determine the extent of formal decision making that can be devolved. For instance, certain thresholds of support might need to be passed before certain powers can be assumed.
2. Community control. The Local Assembly will be community controlled (a majority of members of the Local Assembly must be residents) and initiated from the bottom up (the proposal to invoke the right to self-govern should be prompted by a local petition or some such mechanism that is initiated by local people). It might be anticipated that in some areas the residents would look to invite other stakeholders who live out with the area to become involved – such as representatives of the small business community – onto the Local Assembly
3. Payment. Local Assembly members should receive a stipend that reflects the significance of the role. £50 a month would ensure that the role is not taken lightly and would ensure some degree of accountability
4. Flexibility. The model should be flexible enough to reflect local variations in capacity, local community development history and geography. So, for instance in some communities where a local development trust has widespread support and legitimacy, the Board of the development trust might propose that they become a Local Assembly and move directly to seek a mandate for that proposition from the wider community. Alternatively there may be a number of other local organisations (community councils and other key voluntary organisations) that agree, along with the development trust, to propose the establishment of an overarching Local Assembly. In this instance the constituent groups would remain as they are, and would negotiate some relationship with the new Local Assembly. The Local Assembly might be comprised of representatives of the founding stakeholders or not. The decisions about this would have to lie with the local stakeholders.
5. Non-compulsory. Not every community will wish to invoke this community right to self-govern. The implication being that some communities will have more interest and capacity than others for becoming engaged in this type of activity. Where there is insufficient interest or capacity from within a community to establish a Local Assembly, the agreed default position is for all public agencies to continue as the primary delivery agency for local services.
6. The role of local elected councillors from the local authority. All elected members (local councillors) would have a seat on the Local Assembly in an advisory role. They would act as a bridge into the local authority. No elected member could play a leadership role within the Local Assembly – the majority of seats on the Local Assembly to be held by residents of the area. In this respect, local Assemblies might be a de facto sub-committee of the local authority
7. How might a community establish a Local Assembly ?
The first step would be to invoke a new community right to self govern as set out in the proposed Local Democracy Bill.
The size of the Local Assembly would something akin to community councils 12-15. It could be configured and constituted in a number of ways depending on local context. It could also be seen as a developmental journey that evolves over time in terms of its composition and functions. There would not be a specific moment when the Local Assembly would suddenly assume a raft of new responsibilities and powers. The transition of power (and resources) should be measured, negotiated and appropriate to circumstances. For instance, one might envisage a Local Assembly that sits as a shadow administration for a year or so, until it feels ready to affect the transition of power
8. What would a Local Assembly look like? What would be its structure?
Given that no two communities are the same, would it make sense for this new form of local governance to be as flexible as possible in terms of how it is constituted? If the critical factor in determining its local legitimacy and authority is a predetermined level of support from the community achieved through the ballot box, perhaps this should be a matter for each community to determine for themselves? So it could be the local housing association, a development trust, a community council or any combination of these and other local interests working as a consortium. Or, it might be wholly comprised of individuals who put themselves forward for election. Or would it bring greater clarity to be more prescriptive about the structure.
9. In many parts of the country there will not be sufficient interest or capacity to form a Local Assembly .
Is it reasonable or fair to expect the Local Council to operate as the default provider of all local services?
10. What services and/or resources fall within the scope of the right to self-govern?
This could be incremental. As confidence and capacity grow, the Local Assembly could seek to acquire more powers and resources. The extent to which the Local Assembly would have complete control over a given function might need to be mandated by mini-referendum.
11. Local Assembly elections – three year term? As per community councils
12. Flexible composition – citizen members/ representatives of community bodies/ local councillors
13. A focus on local commissioning? – devolved budget, local procurement, stimulate the local multiplier
14. Gradual transition towards their formation – Timeframes would be hugely variable, shadow authorities, mechanisms to allow communities to test out the appetite of local people.
15. Regulation and Inspection? – some arrangements will be necessary. Improvement Service? Education Scotland? Audit Scotland