Reclaiming Local Democracy

The state of Scottish local democracy has come under increased scrutiny as part of the wider debate surrounding the independence referendum. Why did devolution stop at Holyrood? Scotland has the largest council units in Europe with the weakest community tier of government in Europe. Local government in Scotland is, in large parts of the country, not local, and it is administration – the executive arm of central government – rather than decision-making self-governance.

There are only 32 councils with a total of 1223 councillors for the whole country; community councils are, by and large, toothless, powerless and even more poorly supported than local authorities; distances – particularly in rural council areas – can be prohibitive. Highland Council, for example, covers an area as big as Belgium, with the population of Belfast, all represented by one council; towns like Kirkcaldy, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld or St Andrews are without their own governance structures. Nowhere else in Europe is such a state of play remotely imaginable.Not only do we have far fewer elected councils per population and area than the rest of Europe, we also have far fewer elected councillors and candidates standing in council elections. The selected, but fairly representative numbers speak for themselves:

The three island councils of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles launched their ‘Our Islands – Our Future’ campaign about a year ago, with demands for greater autonomy; then the Scottish cities chimed in; and, finally, CoSLA installed a Commission on ‘Strengthening Local Democracy’.

COSLA president David O’Neill warned the ‘centralising’ Scottish Government against future power grabs and called for the role of councils to be enshrined in law. Among the issues set out for the commission is the funding of local government. ‘The council tax freeze has been in place since 2007 and that is going to go on until the end of this parliament which will be 2017,’ said O’Neill. ‘During that time, local government’s ability to raise its own finances has been reduced from only 20 per cent down to 14-ish per cent.’ That, he argued, is ‘not a sustainable future.’

Devolution was never meant to stop at Holyrood, and the Parliament’s founding principle of sharing power with the people has, so far, not been extended to sharing power with local democracy. On the contrary, as Andy Wightman has commented: “At the same time as Scotland is on a journey to greater autonomy as a nation, the opposite is happening at the local level.”

The Scottish Government’s White Paper offers only limited hope. While promising to guarantee local government in a written constitution, it states: ‘On independence, the responsibilities and services of local government will continue as normal, as councils’ statutory basis, funding, contracts and workforce will remain in place.” That is one of the most disappointing sentences in the Scottish Government’s White Paper. What’s ‘normal’ about Scottish local government?

Centralising tendencies continue, and any attempt to democratise local government will have to slay the ghosts of the past when local elites ruled the roost, and corruption, sleaze and nepotism were rife. None the less, addressing Scotland’s local democracy deficit ought to be the priority of any Scottish government, regardless of the referendum outcome. Reclaiming local democracy is not a distraction in the current debate, it is an essential cornerstone of a renewed democracy in Scotland: self-governance begins at the local level.