The discussion focused on three broad issues:
- Authority – who has the right to make the decisions?
- Participation – engagement with local and wider community
- Transparency – processes by which decisions are made
The ongoing debate between centralism vs local decision-making sparked off the discussion. The shared notion of centralisation is still prevalent in the UK noted Professor Richard Kerley. However, increasing local Government devolution in England as well as recent public/community engagement initiatives in Scotland such as the Fairer Scotland Consultation and the Community Empowerment Actshow that greater local devolution is slowly becoming more apparent.Consequently, this has given rise to many community groups and community councils in Scotland that feed opinions to local Government; which in turn brings a challenge in terms of implementing proposals from too many groups with disparate interests and priorities.Participation
There are currently around 1200 Community Councils in Scotland made up of elected volunteers from the community, which represent the community. This goes some way to fostering local authority decision-making, but there are still barriers to engagement and participation for many people who would be affected by decisions taken in their neighbourhoods. It was noted that issues such as access to information, lack of time, and limited interest or opportunity constitute some of the barriers to participation.
Research by the
Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy has found that across Scotland the most marginalised individuals and communities – who may have the most to gain from real choice and control locally – are the least ready to participate. Following long-term centralism, all parts of Government must therefore devote substantial effort to giving communities the confidence through real empowerment, and begin to develop habits of democracy for all individuals rather than solely those who can organise themselves.As part of this effort in Scotland, the Community Empowerment Act is seen as an important step, although some participants in the room feel that it still suffers from a significant gap in the definition of ‘communities’, nor does it properly address community councils – they are present twice in the Act – in terms of decision-making powers.
Overcoming the barriers to ensure equitable participation in local decision-making can include participatory budgeting, local referenda, and continued Government consultations with a wide cross section of people.
Encouragingly, many of our local authority and H&SC partnership clients are determined to focus on localities as part of their planning and engagement activities. They are front-ending the engagement effort as they recognise that participation is necessary to avoid people losing interest in a democracy over which they feel little influence, ensuring people know that decisions are not taken far away from where they live, and making it clearer to see the link between their payments and local benefits.
Transparency is arguably interlinked with community engagement and participation. Clean, defined lines of accountability ensure much better clarity and understanding to individuals and communities. As it stands, many locally delivered public services covering large areas are not particularly locally democratic. The local public service landscape includes locally elected governance, but also a variety of public corporations, agencies and quangos that are ultimately accountable to the Scottish Government rather than local communities – thereby undermining the principle of transparency.
Scotland’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy (set up by COSLA) recently published a report –
Effective Democracy: reconnecting with communities– in which it encourages decisions made locally, which can also make things more transparent. The report suggests that Scotland needs more, smaller scale, local Governments with responsibility for all locally planned and delivered services, with shared service delivery arrangements where that will reduce costs or improve outcomes.
Further devolution of responsibility to local authorities (and localities) should include allowing local Government to decide how money is raised, how much is raised and what it is spent on. The Council Tax freeze for instance means that local authorities only raise 12% of their income – and that surely impacts on their accountability and people’s views of their relevance – yet they are largely responsible for most of the services we see on a day to day basis. It can be argued that local taxation should fund at least 50% of local income in the future, in line with other areas in Europe (see CSLD report).Some additional thoughts
There is a clear trend toward greater devolution, and decisions taken now will determine success and establish resilience of local Government over the coming years. In all areas of Scotland, therefore, we would like to see significant and systematic reinvestment in community development, engagement, and in the co-design of subsequent democratic decisions. Underpinning this should be a joint effort of the political parties and other stakeholders pressuring them accordingly, to engage with local Government and define its purpose and powers. And if we do start to think more in terms of ‘spheres of Government’ rather than tiers, we need to ensure there is proper communication between them.
We are now facing even tougher financial constraints from next year’s
Scottish Government budget which was challenged by COSLA, warning that councils and their workforce will be hit hard, which in turn affects children, the elderly, and all of those who solely rely on council support. With less than 100 days to the Scottish Parliamentary elections, our political parties and other stakeholders should be encouraging a proper debate about how the vast majority of service delivery in Scotland – by our local authorities and health care partnerships – is prioritised, funded and delivered. At this time of increased financial pressure, we need to really think radically.