European local government: New ideas of decentralisation in a changing world

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 12th March 2024

I was delighted to be asked to moderate the main Plenary Session of the 9th Annual Congress on European Local Government in Poland last week to discuss ‘New Ideas of Decentralisation in a Changing World’.

The Congress is an opportunity for leaders of local governments, members of regional administrations and NGOs  to meet and discuss the common issues they face, from urban planning and the mechanisms of city and regional development to finding investment financing and protecting the environment.

Of course, across all of these day to day issues are questions of local democracy and participation. The panel I was invited to moderate was  a great discussion on the topic of decentralisation, with fascinating contributions from all levels of Government and different European states, with panelists from  Poland, Finland, Spain and my view from the UK and Scotland.

Decentralisation – a bulwark against authoritarianism

Krzysztof Gawkowski the newly elected deputy PM of Poland acknowledged the contribution  Jerzy Buzek had made to the very successful decentralisation of Poland in the post-soviet era.

Jerzy Buzek was a key member of Solidanosc the pro-democracy Trade Union crucial in bringing democracy to Poland, before going on to be the Prime Minister of Poland between 1997 and 2001, and later  President of the European Parliament. It was agreed that the creation of institutions that are designed to decentralise power is an important bulwark against rising populist authoritarianism across the world. Creating many sites of democratic power within a state can be an inoculation against the centralisation and potential oligarchy favoured by authoritarians.

The best services are designed at a local level

It is often true that local levels of government are better able to design and deliver services responsive to local needs.  As such, an effective local democracy is one way to build trust in governance as a whole, as people see results in their local area.

Yet local government in the UK has no constitutional status. Scotland in particular has some of the lowest levels of local democracy in Europe. Councils cover hundreds of square kilometers and councillors represent thousands of residents each. I was able to highlight the problems that the UK and Scotland have with a tradition and culture of highly centralised government. Then talk about some of the innovations and ideas ERS Scotland have in response to the Scottish Government’s pre-legislative consultation on local governance – Democracy Matters.

We are arguing for much more local and powerful processes of local and community governance and the ‘building in’ of innovative democratic practices such Citizens Assemblies into any new system of Scottish Local Democracy.

It was fantastic to spend some time with those involved in local government around Europe, and there was plenty to learn about what they do well. Hopefully, if we get invited back in a few years, it will be us giving them a thing or two to think about.

Find out more about our campaign on Scottish local government

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