Lesley Riddoch: Time to focus on local government

Castle Toward in Argyll was subject to a failed community buyout bid, despite widespread support for the scheme. Picture: William Thornton
Castle Toward in Argyll was subject to a failed community buyout bid, despite widespread support for the scheme. Picture: William Thornton
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LOCAL democracy is in a crisis of low turnouts and remote councils. It doesn’t have to be this way, says Lesley Riddoch

Does Scottish local democracy urgently need a reboot? All the statistics suggest it does – and a group formed this weekend by grassroots campaigners is ready to lead the way.

According to the Scottish Household Survey only 22 per cent of Scots feel sufficiently empowered to improve their own community. Turnout at the last local government elections in Scotland was 38 per cent – a miserable result which failed to provoke a storm because England’s 30 per cent turnout was even worse and Scottish decision makers were able to blame apathetic voters – as usual. That tried and trusted excuse was blown apart by the 85 per cent turnout in last year’s referendum and the 71 per cent turnout on May 7 this year. The size and remoteness of Scottish councils must now be considered the main culprits in the decades-long estrangement of most voters from local democracy.

Over large, bureaucratic and top-down “local” authorities have become the norm in Scotland over the last 40 years. The average population of our 32 councils today is roughly 170,000 people. The European average is closer to 14,000. The highly devolved Germans have municipal councils of just 7,000 people. And lest anyone think our dispersed rural populations constitute an argument for larger councils, neighbouring Norway has 428 powerful local councils and 19 county councils for a smaller population than Scotland.

Certainly the new Norwegian Conservative government plans to cut the number of councils. But even if its controversial merger plans go ahead the average size will rise from 9,000 to 17,000 people – a tenth of Scotland’s council size – and voters in most municipalities will be just half an hour’s travel from council headquarters.

Compare and contrast the large, unloved “local” authorities of Scotland where two day round trips are not unusual on west coast islands and three hour round trips are perfectly normal. Scotland has created regional not local government even though 90 per cent of the services most of us use in a lifetime are delivered within five miles of our doorstep.

This democratic deficit has been bothering everyone except the main parties at Holyrood. In 2012 the Jimmy Reid Foundation produced Silent Crisis, a persuasive and provocative report which shone a spotlight on Scotland’s top-heavy system. There was no official response. In 2014, COSLA’s Commission for Strengthening Local Democracy surprised everyone with a radical critique which blamed over-large councils for helping to “hollow out” Scottish democracy over the last 50 years. The Commission recommended a new structure of more than 100 local councils and offered a variety of reform models based on best practice elsewhere. Again, there was no direct response from the Scottish Parliament.

Then the Castle Toward debacle grabbed the headlines.

In 2014 a community buyout of the elegant but ageing Victorian castle in South Cowal looked set to succeed until the owners – Argyll and Bute Council – doubled the sale price. The community was unable to raise more cash and after the bid failed in 2015, Castle Toward was placed back on the market.

Local campaigners were appalled at the high-handed attitude of council leaders but despite support for the community buyout from the Scottish Land Fund, local MSP Mike Russell, MP Alan Reid, all local community councils, the overwhelming majority of local residents, the majority of local councillors, the cabinet secretary for communities, 31 MSPs who signed a motion, 10,000 individuals who signed a petition and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – Argyll and Bute Council paid no attention. And nothing has happened since.

Doubtless the embattled council leadership – having already survived a critical Audit Scotland report – believes it can count on local inertia and official indifference to stay in post ad infinitum.

They were right about officialdom – but wrong about local indifference. On Saturday 150 locals and activists from almost every part of Scotland gathered in Oban High School to launch the People’s Council – a campaign to change the structure of local government across the whole of Scotland. The event was organised by two local 30-somethings – Gaelic teacher Rhona Dougall and marine science student Stacey Felgate. The pair had been angered by the Castle Toward debacle but were incensed when Argyll and Bute Council then decreed that no election material could be posted on lamp posts or street signs. The pair started a successful online petition – weeks before the ballot the council rescinded the ban. But the two young women had already hatched an even more ambitious project -- gathering community activists from all over Scotland to devise a new system of local democracy.

The People’s Council event on Saturday heard from independent councillor Michael Breslin who has been reported to the Ethics and Standards Commissioner by Argyll and Bute Council for questioning their conduct over Castle Toward and two other local issues. A survey and sonar boat – the only commercial vessel using Rothesay harbour– was banned from the council-owned facility for six years for no apparent reason. After legal pressure the boat has been able to berth at Rothesay again. In early 2015, cuts of up to 20 per cent had to be made in council services. Councillors were asked to colour-code the options in a way Mr Breslin described as juvenile. Local care services were then privatised and some workers complained of earning less than the minimum wage. Argyll and Bute Council claims Mr Breslin broke the councilors’ code by making public criticisms of council staff over these issues. Anyone watching would ask why councillors are being punished for attempting to solve problems.

Helensburgh councillor Vivien Dance – who faces a three and a half hour round trip for meetings at council headquarters in Lochgilphead – wants Holyrood to create a right for communities to recall errant councillors. But the Scottish Parliament doesn’t seem to be listening.

All councils do not behave like Argyll and Bute. But if they did, voters would be equally powerless to act. The Community Empowerment Bill only tweaks the power imbalance and civil servants talk of more centralisation not less.

The next Holyrood election will be decisive. Will SNP, Labour, Lib Dem and Green manifestos promise a wholesale reform of local government so towns, rural areas and smaller islands can govern themselves?

If not local activists may conclude they’ll have to do that for themselves as well.