I was in Parliament this evening for a Nordic Horizons event. Nordic Horizons promotes discussion about the ‘Nordic Model’ which puts Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and even Iceland at the top of almost every international league table for wellbeing, equality, health and productivity. Tonight’s discussion was titled - Is small beautiful - and if so, how does Scotland manage with the largest local government units in Europe?
The first speaker was from the Swedish municipality of Gotland, an island in the Baltic with a population of around 57,000. They have done some impressive things with renewable energy including wind and biomass that is used to fuel buses and shortly even the ferries. The council set up the energy enterprises and benefits from the income as well as the environmental benefits. This inevitably led to a discussion as to why we don’t do more of this.
Of course councils in Scotland used to own power companies. In fact in the 19th Century councils were given the statutory authority, not only to set up power companies, but even to municipalise existing ones. I suspect today most councils would decide to outsource the profits to a foreign owned energy company.
The Norwegian speaker focused on the role of communes in rural Norway. There are 430 of these although many are under pressure to amalgamate. Again the spirit of municipal enterprise was present in addition to real civic engagement. I particularly liked the story of the local care home manager who was more concerned about local gossip about standards than any regulatory inspection. Real user engagement there!
The general view was that we don’t have ‘local’ government in Scotland. Most Europeans living in Scotland can’t comprehend the idea of councils having a population of hundreds of thousands. The level of democracy in real local councils costs but it also improves the quality of decisions, generates new ideas and engenders a real sense of civic engagement. This is something sadly missing in Scotland, where the debate is how much bigger we can make councils and other public bodies. The narrow managerialism of most of our public leaders’ remains focused on economies of scale rather than revitalising our democracy.
Whilst a case can be made for large city councils, Scotland has more than 100 towns that could be liberated through a new sense of civic pride. That’s the lesson of the Nordic model and one we should seriously consider.