How Scottish democracy can be transformed for the better – Alison Evison

The time is right for the kind of ground-up democracy envisaged at the dawn of devolution, writes Alison Evison of Cosla.

Andy Wightman’s Member’s Bill would introduce democratic rights that many European countries have already (Picture: Jon Savage)
Andy Wightman’s Member’s Bill would introduce democratic rights that many European countries have already (Picture: Jon Savage)

Against the backdrop of an ever-evolving political landscape – and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – a new Scottish Parliament Member’s Bill which aims to empower communities has been introduced by Andy Wightman MSP.

The aim of the Bill is to strengthen the status and standing of local government in Scotland and thereby increase the involvement of local people in shaping the communities in which they live.

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This is not a symbolic step – legislation would make a massive difference to democracy in Scotland, ensuring that our communities enjoy the same local democratic rights that are already commonplace across Europe and beyond.

The Bill is key to building on local and national government’s joint commitment to improve outcomes and renew democratic participation across Scotland.

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And the opportunity to transform outcomes and empower citizens in all our local communities is one that should be seized with both hands.

It would deliver the unfinished business of the Scottish Parliament by ensuring that, for the first time, this partnership between national and local government is built into Scotland’s system of democratic governance, and reflected in its day-to-day culture and practice.

It would also ensure that Scotland fully complies with international treaty obligations, and addresses outstanding issues that have previously been identified in this regard.

There is a great diversity between the urban, rural and island areas of Scotland, but there is an increasing and common demand from people seeking to serve their community for broader participation in decision-making, for more local democracy, and for more local empowerment.

The European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill offers a chance to renew Scotland’s long and proud history of local decision-making, build upon the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament, and introduce democratic rights that many other nations across Europe already enjoy.

As a nation, there is a broad consensus in Scotland around ‘bottom up’ governance, in which democratic power comes from citizens and should be exercised as close to them as is practical.

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Yet despite this, local democracy in Scotland is also highly unusual because its basic powers and rights are not set out in law the way that it is commonplace in other nations.

Instead, it is the Scottish Parliament and ministers that have sole power to determine or limit the shape, size, powers and functions of local decision-making,

Incorporation of the Charter would rebalance the relationship and pave the way for a stronger, more long-term, and more equal partnership between local and national government.

Much like legislation on equalities, the law would provide a legal backstop, but in doing so deliver its most significant impact in creating and embedding a partnership approach to policy-making, political culture and working practices.

Significantly, the Charter is part of the treaty framework which agrees minimum legal standards in a range of areas across the members of the Council of Europe, of which the UK will remain a member.

Its purpose is to bring power closer to local people across the member nations of the Council of Europe and set out the basic local democratic powers and freedoms they should enjoy.

In doing so, it guarantees the political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities to work in the interests of the local population.

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All other Council of Europe members have signed and ratified the Charter, but while the UK signed in 1998, it has never been enacted in domestic law anywhere across the UK.

Given that 22 years have now elapsed, I would hope there is no further delay in the country adopting this international norm.

This focus on the local which the Charter cements could be the encouragement needed for more people from groups currently under-represented in local government to step forward and be a voice for their community – women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, the young.

In many countries, more localised systems of democracy are often associated with greater social and economic equality.

In these countries, local public services are highly empowered to deliver services that meet these rights in ways that meet local circumstances.

For example, in Sweden, central legislation establishes minimum standards for a range of social services, and Swedish citizens can challenge local authorities in court if they feel these legal standards have not been achieved.

Cosla believes that incorporating the Charter into law can fundamentally strengthen Scotland’s overall system of democracy and create the foundations for an enduring and progressive partnership between national government, local government and communities.

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In conclusion, the Bill brought forward in May by Andy Wightman is a huge opportunity to improve outcomes, empower citizens and reduce inequalities for the whole of Scotland.

It would ensure that all spheres of government work together with the communities they serve to deliver outcomes and improve lives in ways that work best for those communities, deliver the kind of democracy first envisaged in the founding days of Parliament, and introduce rights which are already commonplace across Europe and beyond.

Councillor Alison Evison is the president of Cosla

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