Empowering real local democracy

The City of Edinburgh Council Headquarters. Picture: TSPL
The City of Edinburgh Council Headquarters. Picture: TSPL
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WE can make a difference argues Andrew Burns.

We need more control of our own destiny.

I reckon the assertion that local government had been unnecessarily stripped of powers, and that its funding mechanisms are broken, would still have been slightly controversial in some quarters if stated several years ago. But now, here in early 2015, I doubt if anyone seriously contests the fact that there’s a significant structural problem with how councils across the UK are empowered and financed.

As a council leader and a member of my local community, I do understand the scale of the challenges that we are all facing locally. Many communities are disengaged from local democracy; councils can seem like distant bureaucracies while councils are struggling to manage significant funding reductions just as local people are putting more and more demands on local services.

If councils are going to survive in this context, and if communities are going to thrive, then we all need to start doing things differently. We need to work together, in genuine and equal partnership with local people, to make the most of the strengths that lie in our communities. Most importantly, we must drive real innovation, with local people at its core, if we are to face the challenges ahead of us.

This is exactly why the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network (CCIN) exists.

And, as its chair, I firmly believe that the co-operative principles of empowerment, equal partnership, and collective action offer a positive route not simply to survive through tough times, but to enable local communities to thrive, supported by relevant and meaningful local public services.

Three key points are clear to me. Firstly, for local devolution to be successful, there has to be a fundamentally new relationship between councils and citizens. Secondly, as part of this there needs to be a different form of local leadership, where elected members and others are willing to “let go” and become less risk averse. And thirdly, we need to create appropriate platforms for devolution that align with the key needs, relationships and resources of local areas.

But even if all these are undertaken, the outcomes will be muted if local government is not re-empowered with meaningful economic-policy and funding levers.

If we’re serious about providing the basis for a radically new approach to local service delivery, leading to the creation of thriving local economies, then we must surely give our local councils the tools to make this happen.

That’s why I was so excited about the findings of a CCIN policy commission on community resilience, jobs and enterprise. In the context of an ailing centralised system (best exemplified by the work programme), the commission has examined co-operative approaches to tackling labour market exclusion and building fairer and more enterprising local economies. The findings complement the current debate on devolution to city regions.

The report calls for a series of co-operative “deals” with citizens, business and central government to build an economy and a system of employment, skills and enterprise underpinned by social partnership, giving localities real power and unlocking the potential and creativity of citizens.

In a nutshell, local councils would be given the economic-policy levers to make a real local difference.

And we’ve also seen the recent publication of two equally important studies.

In Scotland, the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy has laid out radical new proposals to re-empower democracy and in England, the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance has outlined a programme that would lay the foundations for a local government funding system which would be stable for the long term, stimulate economic growth and enable local people to invest in their own local priorities.

If the next UK government, of whatever colour, had the political will to implement this double devolution of powers, straight to local councils, then I am certain we would see a complete transformation of local democracy and local economies… for the better.

• Councillor Andrew Burns is chair of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network and Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council. www.edinburgh.gov.uk

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