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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 31 August 2012

The case for local democracy

As CoSLA leaders meet today to debate the Scottish Government's latest centralising proposal on care integration, I want to make the case for local democratic accountability.
Local democracy is the opposite of centralism. Instead of government decisions being taken at one central point, they are dispersed to councils that have been elected by local people. Services provided closer to their point of use better reflect local need and can be more effective than if provided by central government. Local citizens know best how to spend local money raised by local taxation. That is when councils are allowed to determine local taxes!
In recent years we have seen a gradual drift in services away from democratically elected councils to the centre in Scotland. In fairness, this is not a unique process to the current administration. In my experience ministers usually come into office believing that services are best delivered locally, but as time goes on they become ever more centralist. In part out of frustration that what they want to happen isn't happening quickly enough. We should also not underestimate the role of senior civil servants who have never quite understood the difference between local administration and local government.
Some recent examples include:
  • Ministers came into office in 2007 committed to ending the ring fencing of budgets and they did to a large part. Then they reintroduced ring fencing by making budget allocations dependent on police numbers, pupil teacher ratio and other policies they they wanted to prioritise from the centre.
  • Then we had the Council Tax freeze that takes away the power of councils to raise revenue for local priorities. Leaving them almost entirely in the hands of the ring fenced central government priorities.
  • Most recently we had the centralisation of police and fire services. Even the option of a national joint board, that would also have saved £30m in VAT, was rejected because the minister concerned would have lost some political control.
  • Today's discussion on health and care integration is another centralising measure with some 15% of council budgets being shifted to a Jointly Accountable Officer, subject to NHS style performance management from the centre. Councillors are treated as the equal of quango appointments made by the minister.
  • Other consultations like Better Regulation are riddled with centralising elements, including the power to set regulations and control local planning. Even the community empowerment consultation invites new powers for ministers to direct the work of locally elected councils.
I could add college mergers, procurement, shared services, the growth of the quango state etc. But you get the gist.
In England there is the localism agenda that at first glance looks like a move to pass government decision-making to a level below local government. When in reality it is just another privatising agenda to reduce the role of the state. There are elements of this in the Scottish proposals for a Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill. The problem with community groupings is we don't know how representative they will be, their boundaries, their audit, probity and accountability.  There also an emphasis on community of place that ignores other forms, like community of interest. This is something the Christie Commission highlighted but has been forgotten in the implementation. George Jones in his commentary of English localism puts it well when he said, "Rather than setting up such amorphous entities, the Government should empower local authorities, to promote and support public involvement in their localities. After all local authorities already exist with their own ready-made governance structures, their own democratic mandate, and with 20,000 community activists called councillors in place."
That is not to say that we should ignore the sub-council level. Many of our councils are really regional government and I have argued elsewhere that there is a case for more councils not less. Again, Christie drew attention to the Total Place concept and UNISON Scotland has argued for services being designed from the bottom up on system thinking principles. This approach could include the budgets of all other departmental spending in local areas, so that local authorities are genuinely the government of their local communities. Increasing their powers of local taxation, not taking them away, including the return of business rates to local control. This would reduce their dependence on government grants, decentralising the Scottish Government's finance function to councils and local citizens who would then balance their spending decisions with the consequences of finding the resources.
An added benefit of this approach would be to make local elections matter, increase election turnouts and encourage a much more active engagement in local politics. The will for local engagement is there. The annual Democratic Audit published earlier this year showed that most people think they have far more influence over local government decisions than national government. So the public is already there.
Less centralisation and more local powers will encourage participation. I would argue that there is a relationship between powers and levels of local participation. If councillors and communities had more powers; people wouldn't feel so limited in getting things done. This could lead to greater involvement and, ultimately, encourage more people to vote.

CoSLA and others need to show leadership in this debate or local democracy will be lost.


  1. First time I have seen the attack on local democracy in Scotland put together in this way. As you say lets hope the change of leadership at CoSLA shows some teeth or local government as we know it will go.

  2. Interesting point on senior civil servants driving a centralisation policy. Culture or deliberate strategy?

    I suspect more culture, but their influence should not be underestimated.