Choose Local: #SP16 - 5 PLEDGES TO PUT LOCAL DEMOCRACY ON THE MAP

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Politicians across the spectrum can start to make a real difference in the first 100 days of the next Parliament. Here’s how.

There’s a growing hunger in Scotland for a more local future. Change is needed, but we are urging parliamentarians not to opt for a clumsy restructuring of services. Redesigning from the top down may feel like taking action, but it will not enable communities to reach their full potential. We want an alternative, based on rebuilding democracy from communities up, and on using all the levers of reform rather than just ones that might sound good.

That will take time, but real progress can be made right now. That’s why we’re inviting every politician to work with us to deliver on 5 key pledges within the first 100 days of their election. Together, we can help start an unstoppable movement for change that can transform Scotland for the better.

 

1. Make Scotland’s public services local by default

… through an immediate review to localise and simplify how all public services are governed and accountable to communities.

Any reform of the public sector needs to bring democratic power closer to people. After all, services that are driven by local priorities are best able to improve outcomes, use resources effectively, and empower those around them.

What happens today will not deliver the kind of approach required in future. That’s why it is time to look again at governance right across the public sector to ensure that local people and their representatives, not bureaucracies, are accountable for the decisions that affect where they live.

Approaching democracy that way round will really transform Scotland. It could amount to the biggest decentralisation of power ever undertaken. By beginning the process now, we can ensure that all services that can be locally planned and delivered are democratically accountable to local people.

 

2. Redraw the partnership between local and national government

… beginning with a summit that delivers a new framework for local and national government.

17 years after the Scottish Parliament was established, devolution within Scotland remains unfinished business. Yet around the world, local choices are not something to be debated; they are simply part of the landscape.

Local variation is the solution, not the blockage, to better and more cost effective public services. That does not mean leaving local areas to do whatever they want. National government has a clear mandate to establish priorities for the nation and protect our rights as citizens. But these should be delivered in ways that respond to local diversity, and which uphold local democratic priorities and preferences.

It is the people of Scotland that want government at two levels, who elect representatives to each, and who should determine the services that each provide. That’s why we need to re-energise the relationship between local and national government in Scotland, and put it on a formal footing.

 

3. Give communities financial choices

... starting by putting local control at the heart of local taxation.

Strong local democracy is a false promise without local fiscal autonomy, and reform is urgently needed. We now have a fiscal framework between the UK and Scottish Governments, and there’s no reason why one cannot be created between local and national government too.

50 years ago, Scotland’s councils raised over 50% of their expenditure through local taxation. Today that has fallen to 12% here, but it is far higher elsewhere in Europe. The council tax freeze has been in place for 9 years, and since 1990 non-domestic rates have been centrally controlled.

As an immediate step, a new approach to local taxation will be delivered during the next parliament. But as a country we can be ambitious and put local democratic choices back into local government finance. Rather than setting restrictions from the centre, real local financial powers would allow communities to decide their priorities and how to pay for these. Specifically we are calling for:

  • Freedom to spend in ways that reflect local choice and accountability;
  • An end to central direction in the setting and raising of local taxes;
  • The power to introduce local discretionary taxes, subject to the assent of the local electorate.

A new, locally empowering approach to local government finance would allow local people to see what they pay for and hold their representatives to account. And because the local electorate, not national politicians, would be in control, it would help end the cyclical blame game between councils and Ministers for what happens locally.

 

4. Open up Scottish democracy

... by joining COSLA in establishing a constitutional convention to design a new approach to accountability.

Our interest in better local democracy is not an end in itself. It is because empowering citizens and turning around participation are the best ways to improve wellbeing and reduce inequalities for the whole of Scotland. For that to happen, local participation and elected representation both need to prosper interdependently, rather than be seen as different standards to compete with one another. This is as true of local government as it is of national government.

Change therefore has to happen at all levels of our political system. Significant investment and energy is going to be needed to build the capacity and confidence of communities to participate effectively, particularly amongst those that are furthest from decisions at the moment. That process needs to start now. By establishing a convention in the early life of the parliament- bringing together local and national government, the third sector, public services and communities – we can set a course to build the habits of democracy and foster active citizenship for the long term.

Building strong participation does not diminish the role of representative democracy. Elected representatives are fundamental to an effective democracy and will be all the more so in a context where more decisions and powers are held locally in the future. Our ambition is that as a nation we come to think of democracy not as separate or competing bodies of ‘participation’ and ‘representation’, but more simply a positive culture of collaboration in which everyone with a stake in the improvement of local outcomes is empowered to fulfil their part.

 

5. Join up thinking on reform

... by focusing the debate on local outcomes not sound bites.

People want better outcomes from the public sector in Scotland. Yet some political thinking still focuses on inputs such as police or teacher numbers, or policies that can prescribe how budgets are used regardless of their local relevance. This is wasteful and does little to prevent problems from emerging in the first place.

The move to genuine outcomes has started, but it has to become the predominant measure by which services are judged. Further and faster progress is now needed. Populist sounding but unhelpful arguments about inputs might appeal to some, but we are asking all parliamentarians to embrace a more progressive debate.

Of course, better outcomes are not just determined by local government, but by the way all public services do business. We therefore also need to prevent a proliferation of competing agendas from diverting attention and resources away from that task. That means freeing up all local partners to listen to communities and focus on what makes the difference to them, not one size fits all solutions or complex governance arrangements.

 

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