Issue 14 - December 2016

WE'RE THINKING MORE ABOUT LOCAL DEMOCRACY - AT LAST

By Cllr David O’Neill, Chair of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and President of CoSLA

Look across Europe, and decisions are routinely taken far closer to where people live, and in most instances, this democratic right is spelled out in law. …. many of these countries also tend to experience better outcomes than in Scotland.

It’s just over two years since the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy published its final report.

At a time when Scotland was considering its constitutional future, it brought together local government, wider civic Scotland, and other expertise to look beyond just Holyrood and Westminster and explore why local democracy matters.

Our work broke the mould. We discovered that people across Scotland care deeply about local choice and accountability, and there is a growing appetite to take politics into this kind of new territory. And yet we found that for 50 years Scotland has been on a journey in which local democratic decision making and the voices of communities have become increasingly irrelevant in the decisions that affect them.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Look across Europe, and decisions are routinely taken far closer to where people live and in most instances, this democratic right is spelled out in law. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many of these countries also tend to experience better outcomes than in Scotland.

That’s important, because despite good intentions, 50 years of centralisation hasn’t fixed the big social problems that are holding many of our communities back, and that carry huge social and financial costs for all of us.

The good news is that at long last the political debate is now beginning to take this seriously. All political parties are developing their own vision, and initiatives such as City Deals, Our Islands Our Future, and Borderlands are becoming a reality.

Within this context, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government makes a range of commitments to review local democracy and local government, and decentralise powers and functions from local authorities to communities. A range of specific reforms, notably in relation to education, are also being progressed under the broad name of empowerment.

In the coming months, we will see this work advance further, with government proposals set to take shape around an anticipated review of Local Government, and a proposed Local Democracy Bill.

All political parties are developing their own vision, and initiatives such as City Deals, Our Islands Our Future, and Borderlands are becoming a reality.

It is of course difficult to throw off the shackles of the current way of looking at democracy. But iff we’re serious about putting communities in control, we need big ideas that could really change Scotland, and that means looking across the whole system of government, not just bits of it. My worry is that if we only focus on taking some powers from councils and passing them to communities we miss the huge opportunity to ensure that power always rests at the lowest possible level.

Like any major transformation, that may be a tough journey. The reality, however, is that if we don’t do so we will fail to deliver the changes that are possible, and may ultimately let down our communities.

The work of the cross party Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy offers a powerful tool to help shape that thinking. Its vision has already been widely welcomed, and I’m therefore disappointed that the Scottish Parliament recently failed to endorse report.

I hope that all of us in political life can now take a step back and think about the reform that will make a real difference to Scotland’s communities. Above all, any future proposals need to ensure that local participation and elected representation can prosper and fulfil their parts interdependently, rather compete with one another.

Having served as a councillor in Irvine for 36 years, I’m committed to ensuring that communities get the strong local democracy they deserve. For that reason, I felt it was now time to bring together Commission members to consider the landscape that is emerging, and discuss whether the changes they anticipated are within sight.

I look forward to the debate that lies ahead, but one thing is for sure. Strong local democracy is a prize worth fighting for, and we must not pass up on this extraordinary chance to transform lives across the country.

Cllr David O’Neill
Chair of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and President of CoSLA

By Cllr David O’Neill, Chair of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and President of CoSLA

Issue 14 - December 2016

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