March 30, 2021
Democracy Matters back on track?
If you were one of the 4,000 or so who took part in the Democracy Matters conversations back in 2018 which gauged the appetite amongst communities to have more control over local decision making, you could be forgiven for wondering what happened next. Short answer is nothing. To all intents and purposes the ‘conversation’ disappeared without trace and after a year when all hands have been to the Covid pump, many assumed Democracy Matters would be consigned to the history bin of ambitious but ultimately failed policy initiatives. But like a phoenix…
As elected representatives we believe that a new landscape of governance could usher in a new relationship between communities and their public services in key areas such as health, the economy, and local government. Our councils have a unique status and will always be at the heart of that relationship. Councils’ role in supporting communities through COVID has once more shown us this. As part of the review process, a number of councils have submitted proposals for greater functional, fiscal and community empowerment in the places they serve. An exploration of these ideas, involving all relevant public service partners, will now begin. This will offer the new Scottish Government a platform for dialogue with COSLA following the Scottish parliamentary elections. In addition, a Member’s Bill on the European Charter of Local Self-Government has already reached the final stages of its passage through parliament. This commands Scottish Government support and, if passed, would give the autonomy and powers of councils a stronger legal status and further strengthen our relationship.
The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government said:
“Tackling inequalities in power is a key step in tackling all other inequalities. And bringing to life people’s rights to get involved in democracy and to fully participate is the hallmark of a fair society. I and my Cabinet colleagues believe this is no less true now than when we started the Local Governance Review.
The public health crisis slowed down progress on functional and fiscal empowerment and prevented Democracy Matters conversations continuing in our communities. However, by publishing these new materials today, I am pleased to offer people a clearer sense of how their aspirations for local democracy could be realised. The material also sets out many of the questions that people told us we would need to resolve to make any new arrangements work in practice
The new Democracy Matters material describes a scenario where people are able to come together in their communities to create new autonomous and democratically accountable decision-making bodies which can take full responsibility for a range of public services. The International Review is equally important as it will inform debate about how these arrangements should intertwine with an empowered local government.
New decision-making arrangements which promote human rights are an opportunity for everyone’s voice to ring out. Throughout the unprecedented challenges of the last twelve months, we saw people everywhere coming together to help one another. It is clearer than ever that trusting and resourcing our communities to take action is how we can ensure Scotland’s different and diverse places will thrive long into the future. Please share this material far and wide and help to grow a movement for a stronger and more vibrant democracy.”
The COSLA President said:
“The purpose of the Local Governance Review has been to focus on and strengthen local decision making and democratic governance in ways that improve outcomes in local communities, grow Scotland’s economy for everyone’s benefit, support communities to focus on their priorities, and help new ideas flourish. With the impact of the pandemic this remains as important now as it ever has. If we are to see the essential social renewal that is required then we must invigorate our public services to work with communities to make decisions where they matter most.
By working together as the spheres of government and seeking to continue the work of the review we can make the voices of local people heard. Devolved decision making across all public services can address the huge social and financial cost of persistent inequality in our country.
The materials published today along with the work that is ongoing on functional and fiscal empowerment provide a platform for us to continue our journey. Scottish Local Government remains committed to helping drive innovation, creative thinking and local democratic choice that will benefit the communities we serve.”
The Scotland Director of the Electoral Reform Society said:
The Electoral Reform Society has argued for many years that democracy works best when built on firm foundations, from the people up. We love elections but we know they are only mechanisms. The true measure of democracy is how well power is shared out so that the bodies charged with running and servicing our villages, towns, cities and country do so in the interests of those that live there.
The pandemic has proven yet again that communities are formed and strengthened when people come together to make decisions to help each other and that decisions that are made by people, for people, are better decisions. The Scottish Government and COSLA’s joint Local Governance Review and COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy tell us that the representatives, the institutions, the communities and many of the citizens share similar aspirations on this. The challenge is to move from systems and structures of local democracy designed and built in a previous century to ones that meet the needs of a society transformed by technology and laid low by a pandemic.
I am confident communities will rebuild from the bottom up. A people-powered recovery will be the strongest and the most sustainable recovery. The new ways of organising local democracy must be the roots and the branches upon which that recovery blossoms.