One of the most welcome recent developments in Scottish democratic reform has been the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. which was established in autumn 2013. Chaired by the visionary Councillor David O’Neill, it has bravely gone where no administration at Holyrood has gone in all the years of Scottish devolution.
Today is has published its Final Report which concludes that 50 years of centralisation has not worked. It reached this conclusion after a great deal of work (all of which you can find here). In its Interim report in April 2014, the Commission showed how Scotland was the most centralised country in Europe with the weakest and least democratic form of governance. The graph above, taken from my own Renewing Democracy in Scotland report for the Scottish Green Party) shows how this trend has developed since 1894.
Read the report (and my own one from February this year) and consider why this matters.
The Scottish Parliament will be considering a Community Empowerment Bill over the coming months. The Commission’s report highlights why this Bill will only treat the symptoms of disempowerment.
Here are some quotes from the Commission’s final report.
The case for much stronger local democracy is founded on the simple premise that it is fundamentally better for decisions about these aspirations to be made by those that are most affected by them…
….after decades of power ebbing away, for many people it has become increasingly inconceivable to think that local communities could be in charge of their own affairs.
In the end, all of our thinking has come down to seven fundamental principles that we believe must underpin Scotland’s democratic future.
We have also concluded that the evolution of Scotland’s democratic system across the past 50 years has more or less undermined or inverted all these principles, albeit often with good intentions.
The principle of sovereignty has been so inverted that it is now routine in public policy to talk about governments and local governments “empowering” communities rather than the other way round. The principle of subsidiarity has been undermined by the progressive scaling up of local governance, and central control of local resources and functions. The transition from over 200 local councils in 1974 to only 32 “local” councils in 1996 is one of the most radical programmes of delocalisation that we can identify anywhere in the world. Moreover, Scotland’s local democratic structures can be changed at will by any national government with a majority. That the Scottish Parliament is in exactly the same position with respect to Westminster illustrates how “top down” the whole framework of democracy is.
Will the political parties at Holyrood grasp this agenda? The Scottish Green Party appears to be the only one that has unequivocally done so. In a report in June from the Local Government and Regeneration Committee, MPS concluded that,
[para 40] Our preliminary conclusion here is that beyond the narrow confines of academia and COSLA, people are less concerned about the ratios and numbers of councillors to wards and more interested in how functions are being exercised and the extent to which they are able to influence them.
[para 41] Equally we see no identifiable case for increasing the number of authorities, we are not convinced of the need for structural reform of this type. Later in this report we look at whether changes should be more concerned with appropriate powers in different areas matching local needs.
This level of arrogance and complacency is breathtaking.
There is now a clear divide between those who think democracy works just fine in Scotland and are content to pursue policies that undermine local democracy (such as the council tax freeze) which would be illegal in other jurisdictions (1) and those who want fundamental reform in our democratic structures.
Regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, this is a question that the Scottish Parliament has the power to resolve. if it is to do so, however, the people must be mobilised to support such reform. How is that going to happen?
(1) See page 13 of Renewing Democracy in Scotland
“…during the 2011 Holyrood election, both the SNP and the Labour Party promised that, if elected, they would freeze the level of the council tax despite this being a local government competence. Evidence suggests that this was a popular policy but the council tax level is not set by the Scottish Parliament but by each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
The fact that politicians seeking election to a national parliament could so easily usurp the powers of local government in pursuit of their own electoral success is an illustration of the crisis that is local democracy in Scotland. Had Angela Merkel made such an appeal to German voters in the Federal election of 2012, she would have been advocating a clear violation of the German constitution, specifically Article 18(2).
“Municipalities must be guaranteed the right to regulate all local affairs on their own responsibility, within the limits prescribed by the laws. Within the limits of their functions designated by a law, associations of municipalities shall also have the right of self-government according to the laws. The guarantee of self-government shall extend to the bases of financial autonomy; these bases shall include the right of municipalities to a source of tax revenues based upon economic ability and the right to establish the rates at which these sources shall be taxed.” Article 28(2) Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany