Nothing concentrates the mind quite like when you’ve been asked to give a talk. And today’s Scottish Rural and Islands Parliament is the first of three this month on roughly the same topic – local democracy, Scotland’s lack of it, and how we might reclaim it. Even if the conundrum at the heart of that last bit can be resolved, it’s worth bearing in mind that nothing is ever without consequences. That Scotland is such a global outlier in local democracy terms (only Korea is less ‘local’) is, ironically, perhaps the very reason why our renowned and richly varied voluntary and community sector has been able to evolve in the way it has. Which is all very different to countries like Sweden where local government is ‘local’ and where a politician once told me that communities in his municipality would be shocked by the range of tasks routinely undertaken by volunteers in Scotland. Swedish municipalities operate on a scale that communities can relate to and where citizens are able to hold their elected officials to account for how their taxes are spent – and regularly do. ‘Be careful what you wish for’ was his parting shot. As if Democracy Matters wasn’t hard enough.
In the most recent briefing…
Given Scotland’s long tradition of cooperation and mutual aid, stretching back 250 years to the founding of the world’s first ever cooperative society in Fenwick, Ayrshire, it is striking how little has been made of this important aspect of our industrial heritage over the years. But a project being developed by a West Lothian community development trust is about to change all that with an ambitious £6m proposal to create the Scottish Cooperative Discovery and Activity Centre – celebrating and tracing the origins of the cooperative movement from the local to the global.
Despite being much maligned with a reputation for being toothless, community councils continue to function and, until something changes, are all we’ve got in terms of being the most local tier of governance. They are relatively easy to become involved with, meetings are usually open to the public and they rarely hold elections due to a lack of competition for places. And so in theory, community councils could be vulnerable to groups with extremist ideologies. An investigation by online media platform The Ferret has identified some evidence of infiltration into community councils by far right groups.
The Windrush generation suffered many indignities and challenges when they landed on our shores, one of which was the hostile reception they faced from the UK’s banking sector when they applied to open bank accounts, take out loans or deposit their savings. Faced with a point blank refusal to do business with them, many fell back on their own informal collective savings scheme called ‘pardner hand’ that had operated for generations in the Caribbean which was based on trust and community. A credit union with a Caribbean twist which thrives to this day.
I share an office with an arts organisation that has just submitted a lengthy funding application to Creative Scotland – as have hundreds of other arts organisations and it’s understood the fund will be heavily oversubscribed. With the best will in the world, and while assessment procedures for all pots of public funding are designed so that only the ‘best’ applications succeed, from the outside looking in, the process can appear more akin to a lottery than any systematic appraisal of an application’s merit. Economic journalist, Tim Harford, argues that the random nature of a lottery has a certain appeal.
Over the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament there have been various attempts to describe how local and national governments should work together in the country’s best interests. The Concordat in 2007 was hailed as a ‘partnership of equals in the governance of Scotland’. It didn’t take long before that floundered over a disagreement on teacher numbers. Most recently, the Verity House Agreement which was intended to initiate a new relationship of mutual respect of both local and national government’s democratic mandate. Now lying in tatters after the FM’s SNP conference announcement. Joyce MacMillan despairs in her Scotsman column.
Scotland’s community landowners have been showcasing their work and promoting the multiple benefits of community ownership during Community Land Scotland’s annual celebration – Community Land Week. While there’s much to celebrate in the community land movement, the recently published annual report by the Scottish Government into community ownership is a cause for concern. While community buyouts in the Western Isles continue apace – now accounting for 72% of all land under community ownership – progress seems to be slowing in the rest of the country (2% growth since 2021). The forthcoming Land Reform Bill is crucial.
The West Harris Trust is a community charity that was established to create and improve the housing and employment opportunities, and promote renewable energy and sustainable development in the west of the island. The trust has proven that a long history of declining population and limited opportunities can be turned around by local people being able to determine the priorities of their communities. The West Harris Trust acquired three crofting estates comprising of 16,700 acres from the Scottish Government in January 2010. The Trust aimed to increase the population by 30% over a 10-year period through the creation of 10…Find out more