Fifty years of centralisation hasn't solved Scotland's biggest challenges, so let's try strengthening local democracy.
That's the conclusion of the final report of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. It argues that the level of inequality remains intolerable after years of centralisation and has left us with huge social and financial costs. They also identify a link between the absence of strong local democracy and the prevalence of inequalities. It is communities that empower governments at all levels, not governments that empower people.
The report starts by making the case for local democracy. Put simply, they argue that strong local democracy means putting local people in charge of their own lives, and leaving national government to focus on outcomes for the whole of Scotland. They do recognise the countervailing forces of centralisation - consistency, efficiency and public support. As others have put it, one person's postcode lottery reflects another's local circumstances.
The Commission has identified seven principles that they believe provide a powerful basis for renewing Scottish democracy. They have also concluded that the evolution of Scotland’s democratic system across the past 50 years has more or less undermined or inverted all these principles, albeit often with good intentions.
It's recommendations start with the need for a fundamental review of the structure, boundaries, functions and democratic arrangements for all local governance in Scotland. They recognise that calling for another review might appear a bit inadequate, but it requires a bottom up engagement on a scale that is outwith the scope of this Commission.
They do however point to different approaches in different parts of Scotland, in particular, between cities and more rural areas - no one size fits all solutions here. They strongly oppose the 'supersizing' of councils and suggest that 60 to 80 councils might be the way forward. This would bring Scotland more in line with the rest of Europe. It should also consider bringing the array of services currently delivered by national quangos under local democratic control, through a 'right to challenge' national delivery. This would also enable councils to connect services more effectively. Where this isn't practical, councils should have the power to veto the local plans of national bodies.
Unsurprisingly, they identify the lack of local fiscal powers as the biggest limitation on local democracy. They recommend that local government should have full local control of the whole suite of property taxes and a general competence to set and raise new taxes, subject only to not duplicating taxes already set elsewhere. This chimes with the Scottish Parliament's call for a cross party approach to council finance and UNISON's own approach.
Another interesting recommendation is making Ministers undertake ‘subsidiarity impact assessments’ on national policy and legislation, as a way of restraining the drift to centralisation. This is balanced by a duty on councils to support and resource community participation in all local decision making about tax, spend and service delivery priorities. This means deliberative engagement, not just more consultation. As they say, language is important here. The report captures this as the choice between ‘ceding’ power and ‘seeding’ power. In other words it is about subsidiarity, not decentralisation.
The report also discusses how the role and powers of local government could be embedded in the constitution, as is the norm elsewhere in Europe. In particular, the European Charter of Local Self Government should be put on a statutory basis within Scotland.
While the Commission's recommendations will take some time to deliver, they helpfully suggest ways in which we could start the journey now. Community planning, decentralisation schemes and other local initiatives offer a way forward to embed a different approach to developing local democracy. The powers already exist to do much of this. However, we need to take the opportunities of additional devolution or independence to ensure that we don't simply swap Holyrood for Westminster. Scotland is few people's definition of local.
In conclusion, the report argues that communities across Europe have enjoyed the benefits of strong local democracy for decades. Scotland must be no different. Real change can create a vibrant new democracy for this century and a stronger, more equal society.
I would argue that there is much in this report that will be welcomed by those who support genuine local democracy. It gets the balance right between recognising that democracy doesn't end in the council chamber and the rather woolly community development approach that risks capture by unrepresentative interest groups. I suspect many will find the lack of firm recommendations in key areas like structure and finance frustrating. However, there is a direction of travel on these issues that is consistent with some well thought through principles. What stands out from the report is the clear articulation of the case for local democracy. It is welcome for that alone.