Scotland needs new institutions to transform our local communities

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director, Campaigns and Scotland

Posted on the 27th February 2019

Can you remember a time you were talking with someone and the response you got back meant that it was blatantly obvious that they hadn’t understood what you were saying? You try again, but again they just tell you what they think without reference or consideration for what you have tried to explain. It’s not that you need them to agree with you, you just want them to understand you. Maybe then they can explain why that won’t work or why they might have a better answer, but being bypassed with no real attempt to listen and effort to understand rubs a bit of you out, as a social being, as a human being.

It seems to me that is the way millions of Scots feel about their governance and probably billions of other people across the world. Sure it’s better here than lots of places, but by finding a way to overcome separation and disconnection from each other and from our institutions, we could transform our communities and possibly be a good example to others.

This all might seem a long way from reform of local government, but it really isn’t. If this could be our intention for changing our local governance, for our politics to leap out of the 20th century and into a better one.

In 2013 ERS started an 18-month process called Democracy Max, with a citizens’ assembly, public meetings and expert roundtables. We concluded that A Good Scottish Democracy was one that was built on towns, villages and communities being able to, as far as possible, run themselves and to work together on things that were better done together.

We then took from then until now in a project called Act As If You Own the Place to go into towns and villages in Scotland, to explore where people where ‘acting as if they owned the place’ and experiment with new ways of collective decision making so that people felt they were listened to and understood. Not everyone can get their way, but most people’s point of view can be understood.

Some parts of the Scottish Government feel open to this leap. Democracy Matters was the most comprehensive and engaged pre-legislation consultation I think there has ever been in the UK. In response to this, ERS Scotland has tried to explain all we have learned from this listening, experimentation and attempts to understand Scottish communities.

In summary, we have suggested that our current councils are too big and distant and that any communities that want and feel able to run its own affairs should be able to elect its own council using STV, called a development council. Each development council would arrange annual citizens’ assembly for their community. The development council’s job is to deliver the local vision, as set by their local citizens’ assembly. They can work with other development councils to help accomplish this.

The assembly’s first session will design a local vision for the next 3 years. The subsequent gatherings will hold development council to account on their progress delivering on the vision. Existing local authorities would then become bodies with a statutorily defined remit to provide infrastructure and services to the new local units of governance.

If our intention is to understand each other better, then we need to create institutions that are shaped as if they understand how important that intention is.

Full details of the proposals
scottish development councils flowchart-03

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