Good News at Last! COSLA Report Suggests Innovative Solutions to Strengthening Local Democracy in Scotland

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“This is an exciting time for democracy in Scotland. There is a passionate debate taking place about Scotland’s future, and a huge opportunity to think about what this should mean for the type of country we want to live in.

A healthy democracy is, of course, about more than just MSPs or MPs, local councils, community councils or a network of community organisations. All are vital, and all should be empowered if people are to have a meaningful say on the issues that matter to them locally.”*

*Cllr. David O’Neil, President of COSLA
Opening the Interim Report of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy in Scotland

Last October the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) released a public consultation appealing for evidence and opinions on the state of local democracy in Scotland. This marked the start of their Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy and, being keen to ensure that planning concerns were included in their analysis, we wrote a detailed response.

Since then they have produced an interim report on the findings so far drawing on public responses as well as international and historical comparisons. And we must admit – we’re pretty impressed.

When we published our manifesto we stated that the Scottish planning system should be “a democratic forum to debate development priorities and help determine what development is in the public interest and what is not” and we outlined our vision for “an equitable, inclusive and transparent planning system in Scotland” where people are “empowered to shape a better future through a process of robust debate.” Currently the planning system in Scotland is failing to deliver on these principles, but COSLA’s report provides a glimmer of hope that the right kind of discussions are starting happen and the call for stronger democracy is growing amongst influential circles.

As the interim report notes, the structure of Local Democracy in Scotland is highly irregular compared to its European counterparts.

Graph 1: Population per Council Area by European Nation

Graph 1: Population per Council Area by European Nation

Scotland’s local authorities have the largest area and the largest population of any country in Europe (p. 16, see Chart 1 above, and Table 1 below). Furthermore councils in Scotland are among the least empowered in Europe in terms of fiscal (p.17) and executive freedoms (pp. 14-15), while being subjected to an enforced homogeneity, wherein they must follow an identical structure, despite covering varied regions (eg: Highland’s and Islands, and Glasgow City Councils both have near identical structural organisation and responsibilities despite drastically different local requirements) (p. 15).

Table 1: Details of Council size by EU Nation

Table 1: Details of Council size by EU Nation

This leads to a scenario where so called ‘local’ democracy is both distant from people’s lives and unable to respond to local needs. It’s no wonder that within Europe we have amongst the lowest turn-out for local elections (p. 20, see Chart 2 below) and complain of being dissatisfied with our ability to be heard and effectively influence ‘democratic’ decisions (pp. 6, 21).

Graph 2: EU Nations by Local Election Turn-Out

Graph 2: EU Nations by Local Election Turn-Out

Though COSLA say it is too early to draw any specific policy recommendations from their work, they do provide a framework outlining the kind of improvements required. These include positive and progressive recommendations for stronger participative, as well as representative democracy; a higher degree of flexibility between councils to ensure services can react to public needs; a stronger focus on bottom-up rather than top-down decision making, and; more varied tax collection powers (p. 36).

We welcome these recommendations, and applaud COSLA for their progressive and considerate approach.

We have seen time and time again in our research with communities that planning decisions rarely take into account the needs and opinions of local people – the very people these decisions will affect most! The result is that communities feel let down by a system that is meant to work in their best interests. Not only does this cause widespread distrust in planning, and local democracy in general, it also results in poor, short sighted and hegemonic planning decisions, that only work to forward one agenda (usually economic growth), shutting out the genuine concerns of ordinary people, at the expense of real social and environmental benefit.

With this in mind we are heartened by COSLA’s appreciation of problems with Local Democracy in Scotland, and look forward to seeing how their research progresses.

Author: Rurigdh McMeddes


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Rurigdh

Rurigdh

Rurigdh McMeddes is a Philosophy & Psychology Graduate and a Planning Democracy Trustee

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1 Response

  1. Avatar Ngala Chome says:

    Good piece. Interesting that COSLA’s findings are gravitating towards similar conclusions on decentralization and local democracy in Africa and Latin America. That the devolution of power doesn’t necessarily lead to local empowerment and improved approximation of services to local needs is a common feature of decentralization in the ‘global south’. Its also true that not devolving enough capacity and authority makes the work of local authorities harder, and when people realize that local councils can do less and have less money, they tend to withdraw their interest in local council affairs, including reduced voter interest. My argument, (which I am currently advancing for Kenya’s new devolution project) is that the problem with decentralization projects the world over is the fact that they are not imagined political projects per se, and are more about service-delivery and broadly the delivery of development. This idea, I argue, inherently necessitates a top-down governance structure at the local level, which has been the result.

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