Too little local power the problem

Too little local power the problem
The Scotsman, by Lesley Riddoch

One way to make democracy work would be to scrap huge councils and let local groups run their own areas, writes Lesley Riddoch


Surely the Granite City would be better served if he ran the whole show? What about Glasgow – it seems the SNP can’t quite “seal the deal” because of lacklustre leadership. Wouldn’t a Proclaimer do better? In fact, what about both of them? Celebrity part-time, job-sharing, singing-and-strumming council chiefs would have been ubercool. What about poor Auld Reekie where tram construction and housing repair projects have been hopelessly mismanaged – would Provost Sean Connery have tolerated such nonsense for even a minute? Hell no. He might make a slightly seasonal, ageing and largely absent council chief – but they must have Skype in the Bahamas.


Waken up folks. How can marginally different people heading the same broken system create different outcomes? That fond, naïve hope is the epitome of “the British way”. We tinker with trimmings but never seriously consider structural change. Problems on the High Street – call in Mary of the Shops. Problems in the school canteen – call in Jamie Oliver. Problems with the Common Fisheries Policy – call in Hugh of the Fish. With no disrespect intended to these valiant souls, celebrity voluntarism is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Televised stunts have now become the only way to raise serious issues in elitist Britain. That’s OK when it’s famous Fearnley-Whittingstall in the North Sea but evidently not when it’s eccentric nobody, Trenton Oldfield in the Thames. And yet Hugh and Trenton have one thing in common. Their headline-grabbing “direct actions” are doomed to make no permanent difference at all.


Democracy can only be mended by democracy. There are no celebrity short cuts.


So what’s to be done? If elected mayors won’t tackle the malaise afflicting local government, what will? The first “stand-alone” Scottish council elections for 17 years take place on 3 May. If turnout hits an all-time low, politicians will jump to all the wrong conclusions about the wobbly case for localism and the irrefutable benefits of more central control.


In fact, Scottish councils are already too large, too distant and too dependent on Holyrood cash. That’s why they aren’t taken seriously enough by Scottish voters.


Highland Council covers an area the size of Belgium with a population the size of Belfast. Councillors drive hundreds of thousands of miles a year to reach meetings and connect with fellow councillors – yet despite such herculean efforts, remote communities feel neglected and disenfranchised, while the fast-growing city of Inverness also feels sidelined. Why not break down this massive council administration into meaningful, powerful and community-sized municipalities?


Why not let towns like St Andrews govern themselves, islands like Barra run their own services, urban neighbourhoods like Govanhill press ahead with their own regeneration plans?


What’s wrong with Scots that we – alone in Europe – do not demand local control, create a politics of place and trust capable local people over distant bureaucrats every time? Are we uniquely inept? Are existing councils – the largest in Europe – uniquely successful?


Or has the past elite-run nature of sheriffdoms, royal burghs and parishes left Scots with no cause to believe democracy ever flourishes at the grassroots in Scotland? Certainly, if local governance is no more than a glorified rubber-stamping exercise or a forum for the clash of petty egos, the less money “wasted” on sham democracy the better. But is this what we really think?


Can someone explain how a nation with such a profoundly pessimistic view of its own human capacity intends to become “self-governed”?


A few international comparisons show how out of kilter Scottish local government has become. Norway (population 4.9 million) has 19 counties and 431 municipalities responsible for primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen and social services, unemployment, planning, economic development and roads. The average Norwegian municipality has 12,500 people – the average Scottish council 162,500.


Finland (population 5.3 million) has 19 regions and 348 local authorities.


Sweden (population 9.3 million) has 21 counties, two regions and 289 municipalities. Denmark (population 5.5 million) has 14 counties and 275 local authorities. Iceland (population 320,000), has eight regions and 79 municipalities. Scotland (population 5.2 million) has 32 councils. That’s all folks.


Perhaps, though, we should compare like with like.


Baden-Württemberg, (a devolved government in South Germany) has a population of 10 million with 1,101 communes, 35 districts, a Greater Stuttgart Assembly, a Baden-Württemberg Land (State) Parliament, 84 members in the Berlin Bundestag and 12 MEPs. That’s a total of nearly 24,000 elected representatives against Scotland’s total of 1,416.


It’s a vicious circle. The whittling down of local representatives has been matched by a steady loss of local clout in public health, hospitals, water and sewerage, environment, recreation, tourism, public transport, economic development and housing. Power has been sucked upwards by centralisation, quangoisation and privatisation – further hollowing out local democracy.


Remoteness and loss of power have prompted low turnout – not reversed by the advent of PR in Scottish council elections. As Paddy Bort, of Edinburgh’s Centre for Governance, argues in Scottish Left Review, looking round Europe, there’s a pattern. Councils in Scotland raise 20 per cent of their budgets and have turnouts of 30-50 per cent. French councils raise half their budgets, and have turnouts of 50-60 per cent. In Switzerland 85 per cent of revenue is raised locally and turnout is 90 per cent.


Meanwhile – despite the recent announcement of a Scottish Rural Parliament – the Association of Scottish Community Councils (ASCC) will close in May after a drastic funding cut leaving 9,000 community councillors to struggle on – neither a tier of local government nor a chain of community groups. At the same time hundreds of development trusts managing community orchards, lochs, pubs, libraries, housing, public transport and wind turbines will take on yet more civic tasks without being elected or rewarded.


It’s a democratic guddle.


So here’s a proposal – a Referendum Roadshow in 2013. Active communities could identify barriers to growth and invite proponents of independence, devo plus, devo max and the status quo to explain how their preferred option would tangibly help. Reality-proofing the referendum would enliven an overly technical constitutional debate and place Scotland’s capable communities at the heart of our democracy – for a few months at least.


Too little genuine local power is the biggest problem facing local democracy – not too few Boris MacJohnsons.