The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy was established in Autumn 2013 and operates independently of any organisation. The Commission brings together key figures from across civic Scotland, senior councilors and specific experts with a common resolve to understand why local services and local accountability matter.
According to the Commission on strengthening Local Democracy website and report, the Commission has based all of its work on open conversations regarding Scotland’s democracy and how it might change. This included telephone surveys, evidence panel sessions, public events and written submissions.
The Commission has concluded that major new steps are needed to turn around 50 years of centralisation and put local communities back in charge. In arriving at its recommendations, the Commission has found that:
- 50 years of centralisation has not tackled the biggest problems that Scotland faces
- For a country with Scotland’s relative wealth and strength, the level of inequality today is simply intolerable, and has huge social and financial costs
- There is a link between the absence of strong local democracy at the moment and the prevalence of inequalities
- It is communities that empower governments at all levels, not governments that empower people.
The Commission has identified that there are 7 principles for stronger democracy in Scotland. These are:
- The principle of sovereignty: democratic power lies with people and communities who give some of that power to governments and local governments, not the other way round
- The principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible, and local governance has to be right shape and form for the people and the places it serves
- The principle of transparency: democratic decisions should be clear and understandable to communities, with clean lines of accountability back to communities
- The principle of participation: all communities must be able to participate in the decision making that affects their lives and their communities
- The principle of spheres not tiers of governance: different parts of the democratic system should have distinct jobs to do that are set out in ‘competencies’, rather than depend on powers being handed down from ’higher’ levels of governance
- The principle of interdependency: every part of the democratic system has to support the others, and none can be, or should seek to be, self-contained and self-sufficient
- The principle of wellbeing: the purpose of all democracy is to improve opportunities and outcomes for the individuals and communities that empower it
A key finding was ‘giving local communities the democratic power to look after their own financial affairs is fundamental to local democratic choices and participation stimulating economies and bring new thinking and capacity to bear on improving outcomes’.
The Commissions recommendations based on the evidence they received include;
- A review of the structure, boundaries, functions and democratic arrangements for all local governance in Scotland in order to localise and simplify accountability of public services to local communities.
- This review should be jointly undertaken by Scottish Government and local government and should be designed and resourced to enable the full participation of communities across Scotland
- A new ‘right to challenge’ should run through the democratic system; including the right for local government to challenge for functions currently delivered by national agencies
- Local democratic accountability for community health services and public health as part of the development of an integrated approach to prevention locally.
- That local governments, having engaged their communities should have the right to vote and require change in local Police and Fire plans.
- Local government should have full local control of the whole suite of property taxes and the freedom to set these in ways that suit local circumstances.
- Local people should decide on levels of local taxation in relation to the services they want; it is completely inconsistent with a strong local democracy for this to be determined or enforced nationally.
- Where there is a community will to do so, local governments should have a general competence to set and raise new taxes that are suitable to the needs of the local community.
- All of the above options for reform, singly and in combination are fully reviewed. We recommend that the criteria of sufficiency, efficiency, equity and transparency are central to that assessment.
What happens next?
We spoke to the COSLD who told us that they will be taking no further direct action to implement their recommendations. Some of these recommendations are included within the Community Empowerment Bill.