The Silent Crisis

The Silent Crisis
Scottish Community Alliance

Another timely contribution on the same theme comes from The Jimmy Reid Foundation.  The Silent Crisis predates the recent local elections but its authors are in no doubt as to the scale of the problem. The report draws a distinction between local administration and local democracy. It concludes that local government reorganisation is unnecessary but that another layer of localised democracy is essential. It calls on Scottish Government to set up a Commission to take this proposal forward.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation, Scotland’s left-wing think tank, has published The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland. It concludes that below the national level, Scotland is the least democratic country in Europe. Seven indicators were used to assess this:

• Population size: Scotland’s councils are by far the biggest in population size in Europe – the average EU council serves is 5,630 voters while in Scotland an average council services 163,200 voters

• Geographical size: Scottish councils are by far the biggest by land area in Europe. The EU average size is 49 square kilometers compared with Scotland’s average size of 2,461 square kilometers. Even countries with lower density of population have much smaller countries – Finland averages 1,008 square kilometers.

• Turnout at elections: Scotland has an artificially high turnout rate because we’ve held the last three local elections at the same time as national electons. Even so, only England has a lower turnout and it is very likely that Scotland will fall below England on 3rd May.

• Number of elected bodies: Scotland has a tiny number of elected bodies below the natioanal level and the flattest structure of government of any EU nation.

• Ratio of electors: Scotland has the fewest elected councillors per citizen in Europe. France has one councillor per 125 people, Finland one per 500, Spain one per 700, even England manages one per 2,860. In Scotland we have one elected councillor per 4,270 citizens.

• Participation in local politics: Scots are the least likely of any comparator to get involed in local politics. One in 84 people in Norway stands for election. One in 145 in Sweden. One in 2,071 in Scotland.

• Competition for for election: candidates in Scottish elections have the least competition of any comparator. In Norway an average of 5.5 pople contest each seat, in Sweden 4.4 people. In Scotland only 2.1 people contest each seat.

In every regard, local democracy in Scotland is failing. But the report accepts that, broadly, local administration is working reasonably efficiently. So it concludes that the cost and disruption of any wholesale reorganisation of local government would be entirely unjustified.

It therefore calls for the Scottish Government to establish a Commission to devise a full plan for an extra layer of democracy at the community level but supported by the existing bureaucracy.

The report contains detail of the sorts of issues that need to be resolved (including finance and powers) and also puts forward a set of principles which should guide the work of the proposed Commission. Because minimal additional bureaucracy would be required, the report models the cost of running a more democratic system and concludes that it need cost no more than £20 million to run. Further details are available in the report and the summary report.

Commenting on the report Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and one of the report authors, said:

“Government is a combination of good administration delivering the priorities set by real democracy. At the local level in Scotland the administration is basically fine but the democracy is an absolute disaster. I don’t think anyone really believes they can use their vote to change their community any more.That just can’t be acceptable.

There has been an assumption among the professional classes that ordinary people can’t be trusted to run their own communities. Not only is this patronising nonsense, the experience of almost every other European country shows it’s just not true. Scotland’s communities deserve better than to be treated like naughty children.

This is a cross-party issue and the only thing stopping us from fixing this problem is that hardly anyone seems to realise the problem exists. Our report proposes a relatively simple and inexpensive way to revive local democracy. We believe it would not only inject life into local communities, it would reinvogorate politics in Scotland from your doorstep all the way to Holyrood.”

Supporting the launch of the report Rob Gibson, SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said: “Building a new democracy in today’s Scotland requires accountability and decision-taking at the most local levels. I welcome this key contribution to the debate about subsidiarity for real. Small works! “

Paul Coleshill, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Glasgow City Council said: “This report is a significant analysis of the democratic deficit in Scotland. Taking power to the centre whilst proclaiming localism feeds disempowerment that people demonstrate by not voting. The powers passed from Westminster to Parliaments in Scotland and Wales have not inspired those bodies to redistribute them to local authorities and beyond.

Control should cascade from Westminster to Holyrood to local councils to geographically small but general local bodies like community councils. Voters care about their local GP surgery, their local bus service, the swimming baths and the primary school in a way they don’t about the whole NHS, or centralised leisure policy or educational administration. So take control over these things and give it to local communities. Taking the implications of this report seriously might get people voting.”

Patrick Harvie, Co-convener of the Scottish Greens said:

“Greens have long argued for decision-making closer to communities and across Scotland we have dozens of council candidates campaigning on this issue. Sadly we’ve seen centrist tendencies hold sway for years, under successive governments. Greens at local level have a track record of encouraging community involvement in decision-making. The Jimmy Reid Foundation has put forward some radical and provocative ideas, which deserve serious consideration from all parties.

“I’d like to see this debate go beyond local decision-making, and address local ownership too. Banking, media, energy, retail and food production are all areas where a more diverse ownership structure would bring about more democratic accountability for the economy as a whole, not just for the public sector.”