Scotland’s local democracy is not an optional extra

Jonathon Shafi, ERS Scotland Campaigns Organiser

Posted on the 14th January 2021

The experience of the covid-19 crisis has served to underline and strengthen the case ERS Scotland has long been making for a revamped local democracy. The work undertaken in recent years – alongside a range of democracy organisations, community groups, academics and citizens – means we are in a strong position, and despite the challenges, we are looking forward to the coming year with a great deal of ambition and optimism about what can be achieved.

And that is because our views on the need for reform of the structures of local government, and for a flourishing local democracy, are not held in a vacuum. Global events and those in our neighbourhoods have shown like never before the need for community. And now we need to turn local government into a tool for rebuilding local areas and places after the economic and social devastation left by the pandemic.

The on-going pandemic saw citizens across Scotland mobilise in solidarity with their neighbours. They organised food for the vulnerable, support for the elderly and company for those living alone. The response generated an atmosphere of positivity at a time of crisis and uncertainty.

This provided the basis for hope, and strengthened the belief that as a society, faced with the biggest challenge in generations, we would pull together and look out for one another. That sense of community cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, the notion of ‘community’ has been in retreat in recent decades. But it is clear, that people will sacrifice their time and resources to aid their neighbours.

That is why now, more than ever, we need to revitalise and remake our local democracy. To build structures that can embed localised resilience to challenges, like the pandemic, and that can build on the participation of citizens. Structures that can encourage, rather than get in the way of local initiative.

As we undertake the great challenge of rebuilding from the worst economic crisis this side of World War 2, a burgeoning local democracy is not an optional extra. It is necessary – not just to reflect the many examples of mutual aid during the pandemic – but to rebuild thriving, empowered communities that can develop the foundations for long-term security and prosperity.

At our concluding event of 2020: Local Power in an Era of Pandemic, ERS Scotland joined with democracy organisations to discuss how we could coordinate our action as the Local Democracy Bill makes its way through Holyrood. And to maximise our impact, we are working with community volunteers who have emerged during the pandemic, and who have come to be powerful advocates for a new local democracy as a result of their experiences.

Looking ahead to the next year it is this kind of coalition that can drive the situation forward. Not just in the meetings of government ministers, and among experienced local democracy campaigners, but with communities themselves, and alongside the local champions who have acted to build the mutual aid groups, organise the food deliveries, develop the projects for young people and worked tirelessly on the many initiatives that have helped to get us through an immensely difficult period.

There is then a powerful coalition, the context and – we hope – an emerging political will to transform local democracy in Scotland. ERS Scotland will use the body of work we have built up in recent years on this issue and bring all we can to bear to ensure that part of the legacy of 2020 is a local democracy worthy of the name.

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