One of the most welcome recent developments in Scottish democratic reform has been the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. which was established in autumn 2013. Chaired by the visionary Councillor David O’Neill, it has bravely gone where no administration at Holyrood has gone in all the years of Scottish devolution.

Today is has published its Final Report which concludes that 50 years of centralisation has not worked. It reached this conclusion after a great deal of work (all of which you can find here). In its Interim report in April 2014, the Commission showed how Scotland was the most centralised country in Europe with the weakest and least democratic form of governance. The graph above, taken from my own Renewing Democracy in Scotland report for the Scottish Green Party)  shows how this trend has developed since 1894.

Read the report (and my own one from February this year) and consider why this matters.

The Scottish Parliament will be considering a Community Empowerment Bill over the coming months. The Commission’s report highlights why this Bill will only treat the symptoms of disempowerment.

Here are some quotes from the Commission’s final report.

The case for much stronger local democracy is founded on the simple premise that it is fundamentally better for decisions about these aspirations to be made by those that are most affected by them…

….after decades of power ebbing away, for many people it has become increasingly inconceivable to think that local communities could be in charge of their own affairs.

In the end, all of our thinking has come down to seven fundamental principles that we believe must underpin Scotland’s democratic future.

We have also concluded that the evolution of Scotland’s democratic system across the past 50 years has more or less undermined or inverted all these principles, albeit often with good intentions.

and finally,

The principle of sovereignty has been so inverted that it is now routine in public policy to talk about governments and local governments “empowering” communities rather than the other way round. The principle of subsidiarity has been undermined by the progressive scaling up of local governance, and central control of local resources and functions. The transition from over 200 local councils in 1974 to only 32 “local” councils in 1996 is one of the most radical programmes of delocalisation that we can identify anywhere in the world. Moreover, Scotland’s local democratic structures can be changed at will by any national government with a majority. That the Scottish Parliament is in exactly the same position with respect to Westminster illustrates how “top down” the whole framework of democracy is.

Will the political parties at Holyrood grasp this agenda? The Scottish Green Party appears to be the only one that has unequivocally done so. In a report in June from the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, MPS concluded that,

[para 40] Our preliminary conclusion here is that beyond the narrow confines of academia and COSLA, people are less concerned about the ratios and numbers of councillors to wards and more interested in how functions are being exercised and the extent to which they are able to influence them.

[para 41] Equally we see no identifiable case for increasing the number of authorities, we are not convinced of the need for structural reform of this type. Later in this report we look at whether changes should be more concerned with appropriate powers in different areas matching local needs.

This level of arrogance and complacency is breathtaking.

There is now a clear divide between those who think democracy works just fine in Scotland and are content to pursue policies that undermine local democracy (such as the council tax freeze) which would be illegal in other jurisdictions (1) and those who want fundamental reform in our democratic structures.

Regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, this is a question that the Scottish Parliament has the power to resolve. if it is to do so, however, the people must be mobilised to support such reform. How is that going to happen?

 

NOTES

(1) See page 13 of Renewing Democracy in Scotland

“…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).

“Municipalities must be guaranteed the right to regulate all local affairs on their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by the laws. Within the limits of their functions designated by a law, associations of municipalities shall also have the right of self-government according to the laws. The guarantee of self-government shall extend to the bases of financial autonomy; these bases shall include the right of municipalities to a source of tax revenues based upon economic ability and the right to establish the rates at which these sources shall be taxed.” Article 28(2) Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

 

 

21 Comments

  1. Strong sense of 30 year-long deja vu with this one Andy, but only because the Scottish Establishment, including most shamefully of all, the SNP, have deliberately and sanguinely ignored the need and suppressed the actuality of local government structural and financial reform. Nothing will of course be addressed until at least after the referendum and probably not until 2016, but irrespective of the result, Holyrood has enough power to carry out the reform( including the introduction of Land Rental Value to finance local government), but will the cosycomfy MSP brigade have the gumption?

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  2. The Centre for Scottish Constitutional Studies fully support proposals for greater local powers with these powers authorised by a written Constitution.

    During the referendum campaign a great deal of support has been uttered at a local level for the re-creation of empowered and fully funded Burgh Councils. See our draft Constitution at http://www.scottishconstitution.org

    Further the implementation of Land Value Rent to pay for and be collected by local government should be ring-fenced and inshrined in law.

    Regretfully, our local MSPs and LCs would require considerable re-education to enable them to understand the benefits of established devolved powers that central government could not interfere with.

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  3. Politicians of whatever party want all the power for themselves and don’t trust the ‘people’ to run their own affairs.

    They are probably quite justified in their fears because if the decisions were taken ‘locally’ they would likely be more relevant to local needs and many a politician would end up out of work.

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  4. Its very strange that the controversial 1996 gerrymandering, by the then Conservative Government, used to form unitary authorities hasn’t ever been revisited by the Scottish Parliament. This unwarranted and unprecedented imposition was a big deal at the time and one of the factors that spurred on the devolution campaign. Many people might be surprised to learn that there was no independent commission to set the boundaries of our current Council areas. Instead they are the work of a collections of politicians that the Scottish electorate anihlated in 1997. Talk about a toxic legacy. The lack of action today is one of the inherent contradictions in the call for independence and transfering greater powers from Westminster: Clearly, the core principle of power to the people isn’t being taken to its logical conclusion by the mainstream yes camp. Well done highlighting these issues: It would be better still if councillors and local community were demanding more powers and autonomy. Maybe thats what comes of years of banging your head of brick wall in efforts to take forward local initiatives within the existing structures.

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  5. Derek Pretswell

    Ron is right when he says that nothing will get done until after the referendum but, as in all of these situations, we should return to first principles before we become prescriptive. At its simplest what is the role of government at both national and local levels? Perhaps to provide the structure, resources and environment for individuals to have equal opportunities to prosper and build control over their lives. They should be enablers not controllers and at their heart they should have transparency and democratic accountability and as with the national debate, the best people to make decisions over their lives are the people themselves; local resources under local control.

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  6. I would like nothing better than real local control down to very small units like the Communes in France but when I talk to others I usually get a less than enthusiastic response. Most people have no idea how governance in the rest of Europe works and can’t seem to grasp the benefits of local-ism. There is probably a lot of work required to educate the public as well as the politicians.

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    • I was a delegate at the CES conference in Perth, December 2012; there was a speaker there from Belgium who couldn’t get his head round the idea of large unitary authorities and the fact that we had no real local control of our affairs.

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      • Aye, but ye ken Stuart they’re a’ oot o’ step, except us Jokes, here in Ghillie-Jockoland/ Rep. of Slobakia & Girochequia.

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  7. Localization, that’s the way forward, small communities making decision for themselves, with cooperation with their neighbouring communities, that’s the way forward. No need for large monolithic governments, making the decisions.

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  8. Given your opposition to the council tax freeze, what would be your reaction if a local area voted to reduce council taxes and reduce their level of spending? One suspects that you have only considered that the outcomes of local democracy would be ones you approve of, whereas in reality voters have a tendency to be quite contrary, when given the opportunity.

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    • I don’t know why you suspect this. Local democracy is precisely that. If a local council wishes to reduce the council tax rate – fine. That’s democracy. That’s is what I want – more local democratic and fiscal accountability. That said, there needs to be equalisation mechanisms so that a rich enclave (which of course depends on everywhere else to be so) can’s set 0 or negative taxes. This is what happens in Kensington & Chelsea where Band D house pays less in council tax that a Band D house in Stoke. My view is that local councils should be responsible for raising 50-70% of their own finances from a basket of taxes (sales, land, income etc.).

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      • Well you may not worry, but there’s plenty on the Left who would do their nut if a local democratic unit with devolved power decided to use that power in free market libertarian ways.

        The Left tend to be all in favour of democracy up until people vote for something or somebody they don’t agree with, then it gets thrown right out the window. When 9.7m people voted for Tony Blair in 2005, and 8.7m for Michael Howard, that was the democratic choice of the people. When 10.7m vote for Cameron in 2010 and 8.6m for Brown, that’s Cameron imposing his neoliberal policies on the UK.

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      • Yes, since the houses are in the same band then the differences in perceived value are due to another factor and that is of course the perceived desirability of the site, which of course comprises LAND. That land desirability factor is 100% generated by society and its 100% collection as public revenue to replace taxes on income and man-made property upon land , is therefore 100% fair and 100% unavoidable. There is NO fair level of income tax and there is no tax which increases delivery or production of that which is being taxed; just the opposite, as the recession of the Japanese economy by the Sales Tax has recently indicated. The collection of Land Rental Value makes 0% income tax possible and irons out the ‘rich enclave problem’ at the same time. To obtain social justice we don’t require socialism.

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  9. Councils would have loads of money for essential services if they stopped spending on non essential services.Compare basic 1960/1970 councils to now with the huge list of non essential services.I am not going to list them but you all know what they are.

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  10. Well, actually as an amateur, rapidly gaining an interest in this issue I don’t know what these ‘non-essential’ services are. I imagine that the definition is a subjective one.
    In any case, I’m a growing believer in the ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy and while the government of a newly-independent Scotland is going to have some pretty massive nation building tasks on its plate in 2016, I do believe that massive decentralisation of local government along the kind of structures advocated by Lesley Riddoch in ‘Blossom’ is the best way to go.
    Any new party campaigning on this sort of ticket in iScotland will be viewed favourably by me for one.

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  11. Hi Andy, you’ve talked before about comparisons with other countries in Europe, have you ever come across something which compares the way taxes are raised in the EU? ie proportions raised at local/regional/province/central level? I’m just wondering if we can compare various devo proposals with other states in Europe.

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