Deepening democracy with Scotland’s Local Democracy Bill

Jonathon Shafi, ERS Scotland Campaigns Organiser

Posted on the 30th March 2020

Democracy isn’t static, it is a process. It isn’t always simple or easy, and today it is being tested under the strain of a crisis of trust, one which affects political institutions, the public square and politicians themselves. That means we have to be innovative and bold in our response.

That’s why, for several years now, ERS Scotland has been trying to develop a new approach: of genuinely deepening democracy, not just tinkering around the edges. Local government in Scotland is the most remote and centralised in the whole of Europe, with incredibly low levels of local representation.

What makes a good democracy?

Our work to change this has its roots in Democracy Max, an independent inquiry initiated by ERS Scotland into ‘What makes a good Scottish democracy’ in 2012. ERS Scotland organised a ‘deliberative’ discussion event which brought together as representative a sample as possible of Scottish society. The People’s Gathering saw over 80 delegates come together in Edinburgh to engage in radical thinking about Scotland’s democracy.

Building on this, we helped form Our Democracy - a loose and open coalition of organisations, campaigners, and politicians who are dedicated to improving local democracy in Scotland. The campaign organised ’Act As If Councils’ which brought together local communities to discuss collectively the problems and solutions that could make their locality a better place to live – founded on the principle that people should ‘act as if they own the place’.

The campaign also gave a platform to the many examples of citizens organising locally to make a positive impact (projects we sought to ‘Amplify’). The aim has been to bring together these fantastic examples of community organising with a new framework for local government structures. People want to have a say in their communities: they should have that right enshrined.

That brought us to 2018, where we assembled activists and local democracy campaigners to work up a strategy around the forthcoming Local Democracy Bill, at our Impact event.

All these networks evolved into a partnership with the  Coalfields Regeneration Trust, with whom we partnered to focus on three deprived communities. That led to real funding being invested into the communities, disbursed not from top down but through what the communities wanted: deliberation using a range of discussion and decision making tools developed through our Act As If councils. We have just released a publication to look in depth at this collaborative experiment in local democracy.

This local work fed into the national level, with the ERS organising Democracy 21. With over 500 participants, this landmark event in June 2018 was the largest gathering on local democracy Scotland has ever had.

Our aim was to translate the big themes of democratic crisis into what that means for the local level. It included community representatives, voices from across the political spectrum, international guests who talked about local democracy in their country, as well as innovators and keynote speakers on deliberation and democratic structures.

Here we launched some founding principles: ‘The Declaration On Local Democracy’ – principles that formed the basis for our contribution to the government’s Democracy Matters Local Governance Review. This has now  published the results of its first phase of consultation, citing clear evidence “that people do want to have more control of decisions on issues that matter to them”.

We took this vision for the future of Scottish democracy to councils across Scotland, where councillors were invited to discuss with us their ideas for change. And we took it to sympathetic MSPs, as well as presenting evidence to the parliamentary committee responsible for local democracy. These messages had a highly positive reaction, as this official committee report shows.

This is eight years of really fruitful work linking the grassroots with formal political structures and representatives.

Where next?

Now, as the world becomes even more uncertain and as our institutions grapple with massive challenges, we want to re-energise and rebuild the coalition we have developed on local democracy over recent years.

Our proposals have provoked real discussions inside the institutions that need to evolve, building a movement to make the Scottish Government’s Local Democracy Bill as transformational as possible. That has meant working with the Democracy Matters team, as well as partners in the Scottish Parliament and local councils, all the while bringing it back to local communities and what powers and roles they want and need.

There are huge questions being asked of our democratic institutions, at a time when many feel alienated from the political process. The answer to this instability and crisis of trust we’ve seen is more, not less, democracy.

That is why we believe that the final Local Democracy Bill must stem from more than just traditional forms of consultation, but with real and thoughtful engagement, which will directly shape the eventual next step local democracy in Scotland takes.

We will play our part, bringing together all the networks, experience and feedback we have received in recent years, as we work together to build a democracy fit for the challenges of the 21st Century.

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