Full-on state control is no solution

Full-on state control is no solution
The Scotsman, by Lesley Riddoch

So now we don’t really need local councils. Scotland on Sunday reports that justice minister Kenny MacAskill believes local government must change to fit the “slimmed down” pioneers of the police and fire services – Scotland’s single police force has only 14 “local” divisions.

The paper also quotes the architect of free personal care, Stewart Sutherland, who says 32 directors of social work is “daft” and the current council system “mad” at a time of economic hardship. The recent Scottish Household survey shows only 22 per cent of Scots believe they can affect their local environment – hardly a vote of confidence in existing councils, some of whose leaders earn more than the First Minister. It is indeed tempting to join the chorus: off with their heads.

But lest Scotland become the land of the unthinking tartan tricoteuse – decapitating problems instead of resolving them – let’s think awhile. If you’re holding a hammer, every solution looks like a nail. Yet the missing dimension in Scotland is not large – our councils are already Europe’s largest and, beneath three devolved legislatures and one UK parliament, we are still Europe’s most centralised state. Our missing layer of governance is a truly local-delivery tier.

What lessons have the past four years taught us? Big banks quickly became irresponsible banks. Big contracts hamstrung by “best value” have consistently priced Scottish firms out of procurement. Big supermarkets have resisted government action to restrict the availability of cheap alcohol by loss-leading on booze priced cheaper than bottled water.

Big has shown itself to be problematic. But the appallingly low turnout for English police authority elections shows small works no better – when it’s occasional and cynically instrumental.

What’s needed is a consistent, structured and powerful localist agenda. Surprisingly, that’s what emerged from Glasgow’s Radisson Hotel at the weekend, when 800 left-wing activists gathered for the Radical Independence Convention (RIC).

Ostensibly united by their desire for an independent Scotland, the biggest cheers came for disabled activist Susan Archibald, who demanded local action to stop disabled people losing homes after benefit changes; young trade unionist Cat Boyd: “Let’s have a Scotland for the millions not the millionaires”; Gerry Hassan: “The UK is the developed world’s fourth most unequal state – if Scotland becomes the fifth after independence, we’ve achieved nothing”; and Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who said local communities should own energy generating capacity and use that income to challenge Scotland’s “tyranny of largeness”.

The message was clear for anyone who cared to listen. Young idealists who want to tackle inequality, ill-health and top-down, wrong-sized-democracy are not going to shut up until after 2014. Polite Scotland ignores this movement at its peril.

More SNP centralisation with a veneer of weak consultation mechanisms and overarching unelected quangos (peopled by yet more members of the great and good) – just won’t cut it.

“Small is Beautiful” looks equally unlikely to find a champion in Labour. This weekend, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint said the party has considered renationalising energy to bring bills under control. A single monolithic, publicly owned “British Power” along with a renationalised British Rail might feel good to weary consumers. But that solution’s missing a trick.

Happier, better-functioning democracies than the UK encourage public involvement and active ownership at every level – not just the national one. Nordic neighbours Norway and Sweden do indeed have state-owned energy generating companies like Statoil and Vattenfall – but they also have more than a hundred council-owned local energy supply companies. They have large private companies delivering most of the world’s wood pulp for papers – but most are co-operatives.

Germany’s central bank has generally behaved itself because most cash is banked with mutually owned local savings bank Sparkassen – reflecting the dispersed location of power in German society.

As Andy Wightman observed at the RIC event, the mighty Angela Merkel would be unable to enforce Alex Salmond’s council tax freeze because the German constitution prevents central interference in local matters.

Ironically, the average local council in Scotland (considered too small by Kenny MacAskill) is actually too large, remote and at the same time too weak and shorn of important tasks to be effective at delivery or democracy. Councils representing about 162,000 people (the Scottish average) can only be strategic. For the purposes of delivery and democratic engagement, councils in towns like Kirkcaldy and St Andrews would be a far better option.

As things stand, Scots are chronically disempowered – we are the least likely to stand for election, know a councillor, bank with a local credit union, work in a co-operative, or jointly and locally own assets such as land, libraries, wind farms or village halls. So what difference does the size of government make to us? It is all remote. So if there’s a plague on all their houses, the fewer front doors, the better.

In democratic terms, that is cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Full-blooded capitalism has landed us in our current mess. But full-blooded state control is not the solution. Full-blooded democratic localism is the only dimension Britain has never really explored. That doesn’t mean more toothless community councils, empty “consultation”, or four-hour journeys to “local” council HQs instead of the current two-hour ones. It means scrapping the unsustainable “best value” principle that currently guides all public life and replacing it with a new empowerment principle – though I’m sure bureaucrats can find a less happy-clappy sounding term.

Structures that release the local capacity of Scots to run their own towns, villages, businesses, high streets, energy systems and healthcare should be the top priority for social and economic recovery. Activities that encourage the formation of local “democratic muscle” and social capital should be funded – centralising, disempowering, empty, top-down structures need to go.

Hopefully, Kenny MacAskill has simply spoken his own mind or tried a bit of policy kite-flying. As a government spokesperson said yesterday: “We have no plans to merge local authorities.” But look at the recent direction of travel by this government: health boards – 14; police divisions – 14; FE colleges – 13 college regions; councils – 32.

If a move towards fewer, more strategic authorities is combined with the bold re-establishment of hundreds of powerful, tax-raising Orkney and Shetland-sized councils, I’d sing hallelujah. If anything else is afoot, I truly despair.