The National, by Andrew Learmonth
SCOTLAND is the “least locally democratic country in Europe,” and needs to take urgent, radical action to empower communities, according to a new report from the pro-independence think tank Common Weal.
Their proposal for a new system of local democracy in Scotland, published today, is in response to the Local Governance Review launched last year by the Scottish Government, and is the “end result of an extensive programme of conversation, discussion and analysis carried out by the Common Weal team”.
The think tank call for the introduction of Development Councils, as a new tier of democracy under current local authority structures.
Communities will be responsible for choosing the boundaries of these new hyper-local councils and will every three or four years vote for six to 12 representatives to run the administration. These members will be “unpaid other than reasonable expenses” but wield substantial power and have access to considerable budgets.
Under Common Weal’s proposal the Development Councils would be able to set up a Town Manager’s Office to undertake work “which is not delivered by a regional authority”.
Common Weal also called for a national agency “to support the development of local democratic capacity”.
In their paper, the researchers say that “Scotland is, by some stretch, the least locally democratic country in Europe”.
“With the exception of Turkey and Finland, the only countries with a single tier of local democracy are either tiny (Luxembourg), former Soviet states (Estonia, Bulgaria) – or Scotland.
“The average European population size of the most local level of democracy is 17,241 citizens. The average population size of Scotland’s most local level of democracy is 169,525.
“A Scottish local council is 10-times bigger than the European average, nearly 100-times bigger than in France or Cyprus and three-times bigger than the country with the next biggest average (Denmark).
“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.”
Robin McApline, Common Weal director, said this “lack of local democracy” was a “national shame”.
“The way towns, villages and parts of cities have been left to decline without the local population having any power to do anything about it should be deemed unacceptable by everyone,” he added.
“These proposals set out a workable way for Scotland to join the mainstream of European democratic nations by giving control back to communities so they can shape their own future.”
Willie Sullivan from the Electoral Commission welcomed the report. He commented: ”For democracy to flourish in the 21st century it is necessary to build into the fabrics of our lives and communities, times, spaces and processes so that people come together to build relationships, to argue to agree, to develop a shared idea of what they want.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government and Cosla launched the Democracy Matters conversation earlier this summer. Since then, people have been coming together in neighbourhoods, towns and villages to discuss how their community could become more involved in the decisions that matter most to them.
People across Scotland already have the opportunity to participate in community councils in their area, and we look forward to considering Common Weal’s contribution to this important debate”.