Robin McAlpine: Let’s give real power to the people and reap rewards

The National, by Robert McAlpine

SCOTLAND is Europe’s least locally democratic country. It has less local democracy than former Soviet countries, than big powerful nations like France or Germany or even than a state like Turkey, which is hardly known for its wonderful democracy.

In fact, the average size of a Scottish local authority (in terms of population) is 10-times bigger than the European average. The ability for local people to influence local decisions is worse in Scotland than anywhere else.

A number of years ago I was one of the authors of a report which revealed for the first time the sheer scale of this democratic deficit in Scotland.

Since then Scotland has had a number of substantial democratic tremors (like the end of Labour as the dominant political force in Scotland) and one big democratic earthquake (the independence referendum).

From the tireless campaigning of Lesley Riddoch and others to the sheer extent to which, particularly post-indyref, people all over Scotland have taken matters into their own hands with local campaigns and initiatives, the case for a better local democracy in Scotland has persuaded many people.

The problem has been a simple one – agreeing the principle of fixing this democratic deficit is easy but designing a system which can really work and be manageable to implement is a bit trickier.

The last local government reorganisation in Scotland (done by Michael Forsyth in 1994 as a kind of revenge on the regional councils who did so much to scupper his beloved Poll Tax) cost an absolute fortune – £1.8 billion at the time.

This is the cost of dismantling large bureaucracies, rebuilding new ones (all with their own separate systems) and moving people onto new contracts. It’s hardly what people want public money spent on just now.

Just as big a problem is that people don’t want to leave one flawed system for a new one which is no better. Even people who are active in national politics don’t want the limitations of knock-about party politics replicated in their own town, village or city communities. They want democracy, but they want democracy that makes a difference.

The average land area of a European local authority is 38 square kilometres. The average land area of a Scottish local authority is 2502 square kilometres, more than 65-times the average.

Common Weal has been working hard to design a system which meets both these needs – to be new and meaningful and powerful but not to involve enormous cost or bureaucratic reorganisations.

To do this we have spoken in-depth to many organisations and well-positioned individuals to help us to resolve these problems and to create a new kind of local council which has the best chance of letting people transform their own communities.

Perhaps above all, people told us they didn’t want a new system just to argue over minor administrative matters but to make a difference, to develop the community that elects them. So we decided to call these new locally-elected bodies Development Councils, to hammer home the idea that these are about developing a place not managing it, making it better and not just keeping it going.

This development focus has been brought to everything. We’ve tried to design a system in which local people have the maximum power with the minimum administrative burden. We’ve argued they must have proper budgets. We’ve made clear that communities should be allowed to define themselves and not have boundaries drawn on a map by a civil servant who lives miles away.

It has taken a lot of work to get here, but we really believe it is worth it. The idea that the best people to run a place are the people who live there is one Common Weal believes in strongly.

We believe that being managed from afar is sucking the life and creativity and imagination out of our communities. When you have no power, often all you can do is give a weary shrug. Instead we believe that setting Scotland’s communities free to drive their own futures is an important part of how we build our entire country’s future.

We’ve lived in Europe’s least locally democratic country for too long. The Scottish Government’s Local Governance Review has nearly a month to go. We’re submitting our proposals to that review. If you agree that we need more local democracy, have a look at our ideas and if you support them, let the Scottish Government know before the consultation closes.

Ordinary people all over Scotland have big ideas about changing their communities and changing the nation. Let’s put our faith in them. Let’s give them power.