Choose Local: Let’s build from the bottom up, not redesign from the top down

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Up and down the country, people are recognising that the top down approach has had its time. Reform should start by focusing on building local democratic choice says COSLA President Councillor David O’Neill.

All of us in Scotland share many common goals. We want the places where we live to be safe and healthy, vibrant and sustainable, and offer good, decently rewarded jobs. We want older people everywhere to enjoy a fulfilling old age; the young to reach their full potential; the vulnerable to be protected.

The case for much stronger local democracy is founded on the simple premise that it is fundamentally better for decisions about these goals to be made by those that are most affected by them. Scotland is a diverse country: what works in our cities will not suit remote rural communities, just as the priorities in our towns will not be the same as those on our islands.

Scotland’s local services have had real success in addressing Scotland’s most significant problems, providing high quality education, health and social care, justice, employment and protecting the environment. Even at a time of reducing resources, the latest benchmarking information shows that councils have continued to protect communities while demonstrating some impressive improvements. But with local government budgets under serious pressure, and demand for public services rising fast, hugely difficult choices are required about what to do more of, less of, or differently – and about the resources to pay for these choices. That’s why it is time to harness the power of a more locally democratic way of doing things, and by doing so, overhaul participation in decision making across the country.

Taking power to the centre has just not worked

Our focus is not on any particular governments, but on tackling a 50 year trend in how we ‘do’ democracy here in Scotland. We have tried taking power to the centre and it has just not delivered.

Quite simply, Scotland will not become a fairer, healthier and wealthier place from the top down. Despite all of the best efforts of the public sector, inequalities in Scotland are growing. Poor outcomes for a small proportion of the population drive very large amounts of public spending and if we don’t do something soon, inequalities in Scotland could start to overtake some third world countries. No-one in Scotland set out to create these outcomes, but they are unacceptable in a modern democracy, and they have to change.

Scotland is out of step internationally

Yet in Europe and around the world, communities have been enjoying the benefits of strong local democracy for generations. Councils across almost all European countries cover smaller populations, and they have better constitutional protection and considerably less reliance on national funding. It’s also no coincidence that our European neighbours are often more successful at improving outcomes.

We must have the determination to replicate this kind of thinking in Scotland too. Thankfully, a new tide of local democratic ambition is beginning to wash the outdated centralising mind-set away. Few people now seriously believe that taking power away from locally elected people and placing it in the hands of remote or unaccountable bureaucracies can ever improve lives. But while the local debate is gathering pace, real action is now needed if we are turn the current situation around.

Local democracy is the key to turning around participation for the long term

In practical terms alone, the case for local democracy is therefore clear. But our argument is that for principled reasons too, Scotland needs stronger local democracy like never before.

Giving people a real say over what matters to them is the key to addressing electoral participation and revitalising the whole democratic process. Many people are understandably losing interest in a local democracy over which they feel little influence, where decisions are taken far away from where they live, and where it is hard to see the link between what they pay and what happens.

Instead, there is a simple idea up for grabs - that democratic power should be built from communities up, not drip down from above.

That does not mean that a strong place for local government calls into question the wholly legitimate role of national government to set national priorities, or our obligation in local government to use local policy and service delivery to deliver benefits for Scotland.

Nor does it mean that the structures and practices of an old fashioned type of democracy can be allowed to characterise Scotland’s future. Any empowerment of local democratic decision making must depend on actively empowering citizens and communities too. Simply empowering local services will not in its own right pass our test of a strong democracy; these have to be planned and delivered in ways that build in democratic participation, and empower local people to decide about their place and their future.

Local choices over taxation and spending

However, on its own, this is not enough to create real local choice and accountability. Just 12% of local expenditure is currently raised through local taxation. This seriously limits the tax and spend choices available to communities, and with no real choice available to them, it also holds back their participation. We believe this balance of funding needs to be addressed to truly empower local government both democratically and financially.

There is a huge debate to be had about the future of local government finance. We’ve developed a clear and principled blueprint around which effective reform can take place.

We are not promoting more, or less, taxation and spending: we simply want the decisions about these issues to be made locally. Communities should decide on the services they want and how to pay for these - it is completely inconsistent with a strong democracy for this to be determined or enforced nationally.

Local by Default: a prize worth fighting for

If we want to truly empower local choice and control then we need to make democracy local by default. A simple, transparent approach to local services is needed and, in line with the principles of subsidiarity, any reform must start with a presumption that all local services are locally democratic.

Of course, some politicians may feel their mandate is to control. Some may fear delivering services differently across the country, or moving away from a one size fits all approach. Some might therefore want to trade away real change for the usual wrangling over which institutions to empower, or by taking a top down view about which powers they are prepared to loosen grip of.

Quite simply, this will not deliver the change that Scotland needs. Strong democracy means putting local people in charge of their own lives, and freeing national government to focus on outcomes for the whole of Scotland, and the rights that all communities should enjoy.

It is a prize worth fighting for. A democracy where local communities have more say; where different needs are met with different solutions; and where new ideas can flourish will empower local councils to use their democratic mandate to really influence the issues that matter locally. Achieve that and we can transform participation in our democracy and address the huge social and financial costs of persistent inequality in this country. Those costs affect every community, and so closing the gap will benefit everyone.

This local, outcomes based approach makes sense, and the evidence from around the world shows that it works.

Across the country, Scotland’s historically local mind-set is already trying to break free.

Now it is time to make it happen.

 

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