Local government in Scotland is top-down and distant – but we can change that

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, ERS Scotland and Campaigns

Posted on the 1st January 2019

If there was once a connection between elected councillors in Scotland and the communities they supposedly represent, this has long since fallen away.

City halls are often worlds apart from the communities within their apparent area. Councillors are unknown. And Scotland has some of the most centralised, distant ‘local’ government in Europe.

So who does a parent go to if they want to improve play facilities in their local park? Or an idea for their library, school or community centre?

Too often, there is nobody they can turn to. The small number of councillors Scotland has are overworked and struggling with budget pressures.

The small number of councillors Scotland has are overworked and struggling with budget pressures. Click To Tweet

In fact, Scotland also has some of the lowest numbers of councillors per head in the developed world.

Having worked with others over the last five years to engage with those communities who currently have no voice, we have reached the conclusion that only a wholesale reform of local government in Scotland will do.

That work culminated in a ‘Declaration on Local Democracy’ launched this June. A major national conference – Democracy21 – was attended by over 600 people, all committed to building a democracy fit for the 21st century.

In our submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on reforming local government, ‘Democracy Matters’, we have called for a genuinely democratic approach. And we’ve made some bold proposals off the back of years of community engagement and speaking to people.

This would include a roll-out of more community-level councils (development councils), empowered to take action and improve local lives. These strengthened community councils would set up an annual ‘citizens assembly’ for that area, picked like a jury system. Those citizens would help 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.

To protect the right to genuinely local government though, we need the right to real, guaranteed local representation to be enshrined constitutionally.

The underlying principle behind our calls is that communities must be trusted to make the decisions which impact their own futures.

Communities in Scotland must be trusted to make the decisions which impact their own futures. Click To Tweet

After all, who could be better placed to do so? Not politicians living many miles away in a totally different community. It has to be the people who live, breathe, work and love their community.

It is now our hope that these proposals are taken seriously by the powers that be in Scotland. Local democracy here isn’t all bad, but there are improvements to be made.

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. Now, communities should be trusted as far as possible to run their own places – and it is time we enshrined that principle in practice.

All of this is another way of proposing a radical idea: politics is something which can be done by ‘ordinary’ people, not just to us.

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