Lesley Riddoch: Community empowerment on the agenda

Margaret Curran agreed 'local power can't be at the whim of the centre' any longer. Picture: Pamela Grigg

Margaret Curran agreed 'local power can't be at the whim of the centre' any longer. Picture: Pamela Grigg

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HAS Scottish grassroots democracy found an unlikely champion?

Last week at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities conference in St Andrews, Nicola Sturgeon pledged Scotland’s councils would have their role enshrined in a written constitution after independence: currently, the UK and Scottish parliaments could both abolish local government outright.

The Deputy First Minister’s pledge prompted no immediate protestations of gratitude but then council chiefs aren’t expressive people, “respect” agendas are easily forgotten and most Cosla delegates oppose the constitutional destination of independence.

Later though, shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran agreed “local power can’t be at the whim of the centre” any longer and should have statutory support in a devolved Scotland. She cited constitutional guarantees in France and Denmark and concluded: “Scotland and the UK are currently out of step.”

In another life, supporters of genuine localism might have celebrated the spectacle of two powerful social democrats making common cause over the important principle of devolving power beyond Holyrood. In this life, of course, that is dismissed as wilfully naïve. Of course, both “sides” will promise the earth – say the cynics – but of course neither really means it. After all, the SNP has busily centralised public services like the police and fire brigade, while the Labour Party has central control in its bones.

Maybe. But I sense change is in the air – and not just because of pledges from national politicians. Genuine localism may finally have found a champion in the unlikely shape of Cosla. Come on, I hear you say. Cosla represents the interests of local government so how can it not champion local empowerment? Simple. Until now, local government and local empowerment have not meant the same thing – far from it.

“Local” in Scotland has come to mean a strategic, regional level of governance no other nation in Europe would recognise. The average council size in Scotland (162,000) for example, would create just two councils in Iceland where fierce debate recently reduced municipalities to a “measly” total of “just” 74.

Scotland has the largest council units, the smallest number of councillors, the least competitive elections, the smallest proportion of income raised locally and the lowest election turnouts in Europe. Only 22 per cent of Scots feel they can shape their local communities. Until recently, these “inconvenient truths” were simply noted by local and national politicians as they defended their own fiefdoms against attack from above.

But speech after speech at last week’s Cosla conference expressed an intention to empower communities as well. New Cosla president David O’Neill backed the Christie Commission argument – “you cannot ‘do’ health to people or communities, you must work with them” – and continued: “If the argument is that devolution doesn’t stop at Holyrood, then it doesn’t stop at existing local councils, either.”.

Cllr O’Neill said constitutional safeguards could turn “unequal tiers of government into equal spheres of responsibility” and create powerful “local” players to check the all-powerful, unicameral Holyrood government.

But if “the community” is also an equal sphere, what about entrenchment of its powers, proper funding and mandatory inclusion in joint public service delivery – or is community not that equal? I’ll grant you, the prospect of an extra layer of democracy is not a popular one – if it costs an extra taxpayer penny. And it will. But without structure and stability, how can the community sector connect with the super-annuated tiers of governance jostling for supremacy above?

Essentially, what’s happening now is a clash of the professional titans. The two biggest local budget-holders – NHS and councils – are being required to work, plan together and pool resources in Health and Social Care partnerships (HSCPs). It’s a move everyone backs in principle. Duplication meant 17 services were recently involved in the care of one unemployed mother. Old people regularly get stuck in hospital because the NHS has beds but the local social work department hasn’t cash for home adaptations. Shared budgets can end this – if territorialism, defensiveness and proceduralism are overcome.

There’s an incentive. According to Cosla chief executive Rory Mair, the Scottish Government will transfer responsibility to a single, central National Care Agency if HSCPs don’t work.

Where, though, is the incentive to involve, empower or drive service delivery through community projects? The NHS and Scottish councils have a joint budget of £24 billion. Scotland’s 1,200 community councils have an average annual budget of £400 each and very few formal powers. Local Development Trusts have sprung up to manage assets like libraries, new housing and wind farms. Some have multi-million-pound turnovers, but most fundraise constantly to take on premises and services off-loaded by cash-strapped councils. Trusts are not elected by the whole community so party politics rarely interferes, but they can’t claim to formally represent “the whole community”.

Local government minister Derek Mackay says the forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill will somehow square the circle. It must. If devolution and even independence are needed to protect Holyrood against the depredations of Westminster and constitutional entrenchment is promised to defend local government against Holyrood, then how can the community be “equal” but un-funded, un-entrenched and un-elected?

John Swinney told Cosla delegates it’s not good enough to put services first and think “it’s nice if they collide with people on our journey”. He spoke of “empowering people to become equal partners in service delivery”. Great stuff – but how?

The green shoots of recovery are starting to show in some of Scotland’s communities. Have central and local government leaders noticed, and if so, how will they respond?

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