I grew up and lived most of my life in a rural area. The feeling of having a strong voice about how the place I lived is run is not the most obvious result.
I now live in a small town of four or five thousand people which is the hub town for a series of small villages. It’s very much a farming community. We have a strong sense of community and a really active population – there are (at last count) over 70 clubs and associations in the town. It’s an active and cohesive community.
So why is it that if every single one of us in the whole town all wanted to put up a signpost or stage a farmers’ market or even stick a commemorative plaque on a wall, still we would not have the right to do it.
Instead we’d need to contact a local authority many miles away. It takes about 40 minutes to drive from here to the council headquarters. So straight away I am tempted to challenge them on trades descriptions for calling themselves local.
Once there we’d have to try and get a meeting with officer staff who mostly live in large towns, some of which are former industrial towns. They answer to a body of councillors who get to run the council based very largely on the votes of people who also live in big towns. People who live in the rural areas don’t always vote the same way as the people in the big towns. There isn’t an awful lot of incentive for the council as a whole to give a damn about our signpost or market or plaque.
If no-one really objects we’ll probably get our project put in a queue. If there is a financial implication the queue will be longer. If there are other things being spent in the town which we don’t really want spent, we can’t just say ‘don’t do that, fund our project instead’. We don’t have the right to make that decision. So we’ll wait on their timetable.
If someone objects or if there are doubts on the part of the officials, it’ll have to go to the full council. It meets irregularly, and is run by an executive that doesn’t even do much of its business in sessions which are open to the public.
So we’re completely reliant on the one councillor we sent. He can be outvoted absolutely every time because he’s only one councillor who doesn’t come from the same party as the ruling party. And if he happens to be not a very good councillor, we’re basically screwed.
And that’s what we have to go through to get a memorial plaque up on the wall. Setting out a local economic development strategy which differs from that set out by our ‘local’ authority to recognise that we’re rural and they’re urban and we don’t have the same kind of local economy? You’re kidding. Manage our local cottage hospital in a way that reflects the fact that our closest accident and emergency service is more than 45 minutes away? Not a chance.
We’re different from other parts of our mega-authority – but we can’t behave differently because there really is not a way you could claim that we have anything like proper local democracy. And it’s not just us – every town in the whole mega-authority area gets treated either as a faceless average or as an inconvenience. The bureaucrats will pick ‘key performance indicators’ which will inevitably be one which is most relevant to the big towns and we will then be managed through those indicators had any relevance to us.
And people wonder why rural Scotland is struggling.
Let me just spell this out as clearly as I can – Scotland has the worst local democracy in Europe and possibly in the developed world. The statistics make your eyes water. The average population size of an area of local government in Europe is 5,630. In Scotland it is 152,680. The average geographical size of a European local authority area is 49 square kilometres. In Scotland it is 2,461. (And even a similarly sparsely populated country like Finland averages 1,006).
We are the only country in the continent who has only regional government, not regional and local. Everyone else has three tiers with the bottom tier representing towns. In France the average councillor has 125 constituents. In Germany it is 400. In Italy it is 600. The next worst to us is England where a councillor has 2,860 constituents. In Scotland an average councillor has to look after the interests of 4,270 people.
And because of this, local government is something that barely involves ordinary people. In Norway, one out of every 81 members of the population stands for election as a councillor. In Germany it is one in 141 people. In Scotland it is one in 2,071. Then again, for every councillor elected in Scotland only 2.1 people contested each place.
On absolutely every indicator the people of Scotland have the least control over their local area – not by a factor of one or two but by a factor of 30 or 40 or 50. And when people don’t have control over their local area, you need to hope the bureaucrats are really good and really care. And I’m afraid that my experience of the local governance of rural Scotland, those can be forlorn hopes.
It has become one of my strongest beliefs in politics that unless we let people take responsibility for themselves, we’ll never fix anything. We’ll fail to harness the intelligence, skills and knowledge of the very people who should be driving us forward. We’ll fail to recognise the distinctive nature of each of the different places we live, taking a pointless one-size-fits-all approach. And we’ll continue to give people the distinct impression that ‘local’ politics don’t care about them – and that they shouldn’t care about local politics.
Rural Scotland needs the power to devise strategies for their own development, to change themselves and not have their decline managed from afar. It would be easy – we don’t need a new layer of bureaucrats, we need a new layer of community politicians who instruct those bureaucrats and tell them what to do rather than the other way round.
Until we do, the voice of rural Scotland will continue to sound a bit like it sometimes does now – one long moan from people who seem to have been forgotten by our own democracy.
Robin McAlpine is Director of Common Weal