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The Future of Scotland: A radical shift towards local democracy

15th March 2014

Andy Wightman brings The Future of Scotland series to a close, calling for more powers to be transferred to a local level whatever the result this September

When the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum campaign launched in May 2012 it invited us all to agree that “I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all, if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people of Scotland.” This is an admirable sentiment. It emphasises a democratic rather than nationalistic dimension to the decision to be taken on 18 September 2014.

But just as it is better that more decisions about Scotland are made in Scotland, so it is better that more decisions about Stirling, Inverness and Aberdeen and made in Stirling, Inverness and Aberdeen. The trend is very much the opposite, however.

During the 2011 Holyrood election, both the SNP and the Labour Party promised that, if elected, they would freeze the level of the council tax despite this being a local government competence. Evidence suggests that this was a popular policy but the council tax level is not set by the Scottish Parliament but by each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

The fact that politicians seeking election to a national parliament could so easily usurp the powers of local government in pursuit of their own electoral success is an illustration of the crisis that is local democracy in Scotland. Had Angela Merkel made such an appeal to German voters in the Federal election of 2012, she would have been advocating a clear violation of the German constitution, specifically Article 18(2).

Any argument for greater democracy and autonomy cannot and should not stop in Edinburgh. Scotland is an incredibly diverse country where rich, varied and very distinctive cultures thrive in close proximity to one another. And yet, Scotland has the least democratic governance arrangements in the whole of Europe where localities lack the political institutions that, in countries like Denmark, France, Norway and Germany, provide the basis for genuinely local government. In 1894, Scotland had 1109 lowest tier parish and town councils. In 1930, parish councils were abolished and the number of lowest tier councils fell to 406. With the abolition of genuine local government in 1975, we were left with 53 districts. These in turn these were abolished in 1996 and replaced by 32 unitary authorities.

Whether Scotland becomes an independent country or remains part of the United Kingdom, we need to talk about the local and about the crisis of democracy, funding, power and status. The independence debate creates the opportunity to discuss the constitutional protection of local democracy, and the possible transfer of full powers to the Scottish Government could provide the stimulus needed to encourage Ministers of every party end their habit of controlling local affairs from the centre.

As the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) recently claimed,

“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 they have more local councils, local elected councillors represent fewer people, and that these councils and their services are constitutionally protected and their funding secured by law, even with regard to national policy making.

We should seek the same benefit, and the same independence that local government has in most western democracies.”

In Iceland, for example, a country of 321,857 people (half the population of Glasgow), there are 74 municipalities. They raise 82% of their own income. Over the last four decades, participation has, as the Association of Local Authorities in Iceland puts it, “been rather steady” with an average turnout at elections of around 85%. In some municipalities it was 100% – every single person on the electoral roll turned out to vote.

Right across Europe there are higher turnouts, greater participation and more local democracy than in Scotland. Indeed, the McIntosh Report in 1999 which laid the framework for local government in the devolution era was very clear:

“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.”

Over the past 50 years, the story has been one of increasing centralisation as former local competencies such as colleges, courts and police have been transferred to the national level. Last year COSLA established a Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy – a welcome initiative which has the potential to breathe fresh life into a part of government that has been taken for granted for too long.

In a recent report for the Scottish Green Party, I argued the case for local, autonomous municipalities that had the flexibility and freedom to work together with a tier of larger strategic authorities. Regardless of the result of the independence referendum, a radical shift in power to the local level is needed to improve democracy, stimulate the economy and empower communities.


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