Three days to go to polling day for the council elections - just in case anyone noticed. Even before the general election was dumped on us, national issues dominated the debate.
If the parties want to debate the constitution they might at least give some consideration to the local. The debate around constitutional change in Scotland is primarily focused on what powers come from Westminster to Holyrood. In the latest Red Paper 'Progressive Federalism' publication, I argue that federalism should be based on the concept of subsidiarity - the idea that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical level.
I recall listening to a debate at an SNP conference when a delegate proudly proclaimed, ‘Scotland is our local’. In fairness this declaration wasn't received that rapturously and I don’t think it's true even in an independent Scotland. However, it shouldn't be the starting point for debate.
Local government in Scotland is facing huge pressures. Primarily financial because while the overall Scottish budget is largely determined by Westminster, the Scottish Government decides where the axe will fall. They have chosen to cut local government disproportionately. This is in part a consequence of giving some protection to the NHS budget, but arguably also because of some antipathy towards local government. There is also the added political advantage of pushing difficult decisions away from ministerial desks – the ‘not me guv’ school of politics.
Early public service reform initiatives from the SNP government were largely centralist – most notably Police Scotland and the Fire and Rescue Service. Possibly due to that less than positive experience, ministers have moved to more subtle ways of centrally directing services. This is achieved through extensive ministerial powers of direction, as in health and care integration; or by using quangos to direct policy while leaving delivery local, as with community justice. The current proposals for education governance include regional boards and ministers allocating funds direct to schools. Marketisation is also making an appearance, with voucher schemes for early learning and childcare. There is to be a review of local government, although at the present rate of progress, local government is simply withering on the vine.
Local government has not always responded well to this onslaught. Many councils have simply become the passive administrators of austerity, rather than standing up for their communities, as I argue in the January issue of Scottish Left Review.
So, how might federalism offer a new start for local democracy in Scotland?
A federal Scotland should ensure that decisions are taken at the lowest practical level. While it is important to have national standards and guidance, these should not be used to stifle local innovation or local differences. Services should be designed with and for people in communities of place and interest. Co-production and asset-based approaches can contribute to this as a positive engagement not simply to manage budgetary cuts. In a practical sense this means looking at every power that is devolved to Scotland and asking the subsidiarity question – can this be done locally?
In my Reid Foundation paper on public service reform I point towards an even more radical approach that starts with people and communities and consider what powers are granted up to local government and central government. In essence people locally agree to share sovereignty with local, regional and national structures, because that is the most effective way of achieving our collective public service ethos.
This leads to the question of what we mean by ‘local’ or even a recognisable community of place? Is it a street, a village, a town or a city? Again, if we apply the principle of subsidiarity, it is the lowest practical level and that is probably roughly a town and its hinterland. Cities are more difficult to break down into recognisable communities, but it can be done.
At this level we can introduce better integration of services and meaningful engagement with citizens. In a column in The Scotsman, I describe a number of initiatives that could create a new culture of engagement. These include the Co-operative Councils Network, the Carnegie Trust’s ‘Enabling State’ and Participatory Budgeting. None of these ideas offers a perfect solution, but they do point to a more meaningful collective engagement of citizens than traditional consultation mechanisms.
This is not a clarion call for pure localism. In a country the size of Scotland we cannot justify duplication and difference for the sake of it. There is a role for central government to set outcomes and possibly even minimum standards, while avoiding prescription and central direction. They could agree frameworks (workforce matters is a good example) that allow the local to focus on what matters.
So, even if constitutional issues are uppermost in your mind when you vote on Thursday, they should still have a local dimension. We need to go much further than simply shifting more powers from Westminster to Holyrood. We should turn the traditional ‘hand me down’ approach on its head. It starts with the local, building up to the nation state. In our geographically, economically and culturally diverse country - Scotland is certainly NOT our local.