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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Local Democracy Week
This is European Local Democracy Week. Every year between 15 and 21 October, the ELDW brings together local authorities from all the 47 member states of the Council of Europe to organise public events to meet and engage with their citizens on issues of current interest. The aim is to promote and foster democratic participation at a local level.
The aims include:
- better involvement of citizens in public life and interaction with local authorities,
- testing citizens’ acquaintance with the participatory tools and their trust in local institutions,
- improving social cohesion and respect of others in the community,
- taking part in a network of European municipalities and regions keen to improve local democracy in their place and across Europe.
ELDW comes at an opportune time for Scotland as we have seen a gradual drift in services away from democratically elected councils to the centre. I set out this centralisation in more detail in a blog post last August. Police and fire reform, the Council Tax freeze, ring fencing funds, care integration and others all reflect a tendency from the Scottish Government towards centralisation.
This is not a unique process to the current administration. 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.
Two Scottish think tanks published reports this summer on local democracy. Neither in my view quite hit the nail, although both are a useful contribution to the debate. We summarise both approaches in our 'Futures' magazine.
ELDW also emphasises the importance of elected democracy - elected representatives, democratically accountable to their community. There is of course an important role for community groups and others in an active democracy, but they are not a substitute for democratic accountability. We should therefore be careful that initiatives like the Community Empowerment and Engagement Bill does not undermine local democracy.
This year's ELDW is putting a focus on human rights in the context of austerity economics across Europe. Human rights are an integral part of local democracy. Many human rights and freedoms are implemented at local level, as is also the case with social and civil rights. These rights include protection and respect for elderly and disadvantaged people, children, minority groups as well as access to public services and freedom of assembly. Every citizen has a responsibility to protect human rights, while local authorities have a key role to play in ensuring that this concept becomes the foundation of a modern and cohesive community.
Events like ELDW give us all an opportunity to recognise the importance of the local democracy we often take for granted. We should stand up for democratic accountability before the drive to centralisation swallows it up.