Campaigners call for local government overhaul to ‘put the public in charge’

Posted on the 14th December 2018

The Electoral Reform Society has called for a radical overhaul of Scotland’s ‘top-down’ local government, in a submission to ministers [1]. 

The Society’s submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on reforming local government, ‘Democracy Matters’, calls for a ‘genuinely democratic’ approach to local government, which is among the most centralised in Europe [2].

Scotland also has some of the lowest numbers of councillors per head in the whole of Europe, while the 32 top-level councils are often ‘distant and out of touch’ with local communities.

The past few years has seen a groundswell of opinion forming for a new, grassroots approach, with a coalition of campaigners – Our Democracy [3] – working with communities to see how they’d like their services to be run.

A five-year long process of civil society and a community engagement on the state of local democracy culminated in a ‘Declaration on Local Democracy’ launched this June [4]. A major national conference – Democracy21 – was attended by over 600 people, and committed to building a democracy fit for the 21st century.

In line with the Declaration, the ERS have called on ministers to enshrine the right to ‘genuinely local government’, giving citizens the ability to decide what powers their local area should have.

To facilitate this the ERS are calling for:

  • A roll-out of new, legally-empowered community-level councils (‘development councils’). Existing councils would be given expanded revenue-raising powers to enable this to happen. The new, more-local development councils would be empowered to take action and improve local lives.
  • These strengthened community councils would establish a standing, annual citizens assembly for that area, picked by ‘sortition’ (akin to a jury system). This would design a community vision/plan for the next three years, with the ‘development council’ accountable to the citizens assembly for putting that vision into practice. The citizens assembly system should be overseen by a reformed Elections Management Board.
  • The right to genuinely local, democratic governance should be enshrined constitutionally.

Willie Sullivan, Director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said:

“Local government is in dire need of an overhaul if we are to reverse a decline in legitimacy. Too often people feel local governance is done to the people, rather than by them.

“Scottish local governance operates within a very different context from the last time it was reviewed and changed. In 1995 there was no Google, Facebook or smartphones, and John Major’s Government was in power at Westminster.

“Today, there is a feeling that in such a networked world, ‘local’ government in Scotland is top-down and distant. It has become an oligarchy at a time people want a better democracy. The Scottish government should be commended for looking at options for reform.

“The current system of local councils and health boards are limited by their large scale and distance from people and communities, so that there is no local identification or ownership felt by these institutions by citizens. This can and must change.

“Communities should be trusted as far as possible to run their own places – and it is time we enshrined that principle in Scotland’s constitution. 

“For the past five years, the ERS has been looking in-depth at ways to revitalise local government in Scotland, hearing from thousands of people across the country. Our submission to the Scottish government draws directly on that process and the calls we’ve heard for change. 

“Drawing on the excellent work of organisations ranging from CommonWeal to the Convention on Scottish Local Authorities’s (CoSLAs) Commission, our bold proposals seek to put that principle into practice, with communities given real power over their futures.”

The ERS have led the ‘Our Democracy’ coalition in running ‘Act As If You Own the Place’ events across Scotland, helping communities imagine in practice what genuinely local democracy would look like.

ENDS

Notes to Editors

[1] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Scottish-Local-Government-reform-consultation-response-briefing-FINAL.pdf 
[2] https://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland-most-centralised-in-europe-cosla-1-3387590
[3] https://ourdemocracy.scot/ 
[4] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/scottish-civil-society-launches-declaration-on-local-democracy-to-tackle-over-centralised-govt/ and https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/600-people-gather-in-glasgow-for-democracy21/

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