Were it not for Brexit, the lamentable state of Scottish local democracy might well have come under more sustained scrutiny with the prospect of the next local authority elections next May. Even so, organisations like Common Weal, the Scottish Rural Parliament, the Electoral Reform Society and Nordic Horizons are determined to push for a radical rethinking of local democracy in Scotland.
The facts are easily established: Scotland has the largest council units in Europe and the weakest community tier of government in Europe. Local government in Scotland is, in large parts of the country, anything but local – or what would you call travelling 80, 90, and in many cases over 100 miles to your ‘local’ authority? Moreover, it is administration – the executive arm of central government – rather than self-governance, decision-making at the local level. Community councils are, by and large, toothless, powerless and even more poorly supported than local authorities.
Towns like Kirkcaldy, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, Motherwell or St Andrews are without their own governance structures. Nowhere else in Europe is such a state of play remotely imaginable. Scotland’s 32 councils, with a total of 1223 elected councillors for the whole country, means that 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.
Scotland’s local government system is extraordinary in its lack of democratic participation. It is remote from the citizens, top-down, managerial, focused entirely on the delivery of public services, offering very little democratic decision-making in the communities. Scottish local democracy has been compared to a ladder that is missing its lower rungs. It is excluding Scots from running their own local affairs, denying them immediate access to democracy.
Citizens are reduced to customers in a marketised system of local governance, exacerbated by out-sourcing and privatisation of services. In the preface to a report on this local democracy deficit, Lesley Riddoch made a link between this sorry state and the challenges of the independence referendum: ‘It’s hard to see how people deemed incapable of running their own towns and villages – uniquely in Europe – will confidently vote to run their own country.’
The island councils, the Scottish cities, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ ‘Strengthening Local Democracy’ commission have all persuasively argued for greater local autonomy. The independence campaign has shown that there are thousands of capable people across Scotland who are willing to engage in politics and act as citizens. Admittedly, campaigning is different from governing, but the demand seems there for more local autonomy. Neal Ascherson, who during the referendum campaign was travelling the length and breadth on the ‘bus party’ (an idea borrowed from Günter Grass in Germany), reported that the lack of local democracy was voiced at every stop they made: ‘From Wick to Dumbarton, people wrote on the roll about enhancing local democracy, creating a Scotland with a modern European form of sovereignty.’
Reviving local democracy should be high up on the agenda of the Scottish Parliament. Devolution was never meant to stop at the Edinburgh Parliament, and the Parliament’s founding principle of sharing power with the people has, so far, not 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 moment more powers are devolved to Holyrood should be the perfect time to devolve powers from Holyrood to local communities. 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.