Joyce McMillan: Start local to rebuild democracy

Without enough politicians to represent us, the onward march of development will go unchecked, writes Joyce McMillan

The debating chamber at the The Old Royal High School. Picture: Neil Hanna
The debating chamber at the The Old Royal High School. Picture: Neil Hanna

ANOTHER week, another avalanche of controversial planning decisions from Scotland’s major local authorities.

This week, it’s the Marischal Square development in Aberdeen, a massive, unlovely block of hotel, office and retail space that is set to obstruct the view of the city’s beautiful Marischal College from the surrounding streets. There’s also the “people’s pedal-bin” proposal to replace the much-loved Concert Hall steps at the top of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street with a new glass cylinder containing an Imax cinema, and yet more retail space.

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And then there is Edinburgh, and the current almighty row over the future of the old Royal High School on Calton Hill, probably the city’s most prominent building apart from the castle. There are still people in vigorous middle age who went to school at the old Royal High back in the 1960s, in the days when boys making their final farewells at the end of sixth year were allowed to pass out through the great doors of the school hall, and to stand under that mighty classical pediment, looking out over their city. Then for 30 years after the school moved out in 1968, the building was regarded as the obvious home for any future Scottish Parliament or Assembly, should it come to pass.



Following former first minister Donald Dewar’s historic decision to site the new parliament at Holyrood, though, the building was left in limbo. And now, it seems cash-strapped Edinburgh City Council has thrown in the towel and made a near-irrevocable decision to sign this great Edinburgh landmark over for development as a “six-star” international hotel – a bolthole for plutocrats and oligarchs, in a building once built to celebrate the democratic intellect.

In Edinburgh, the looming Royal High decision comes hot on the heels of the long-running civic farce and tragedy that was the tram project, the breathtakingly insensitive Caltongate project which has already almost cost the city its World Heritage Site status, a significant micro-row over the loss of the vital Picture House music venue in Lothian Road, and widespread dismay over the destruction of B-listed buildings in St Andrew Square, for further bland retail and office development.

And all this, in Scotland, comes against a backdrop of mounting concern about what is happening in London, where once-vibrant local areas are now being bought up and redeveloped – often for sale to overseas property-holders who may not even live there – at a rate that leaves local communities almost helpless to resist. Clearly, some balance has now decisively tipped, in the long-term struggle for public urban space between institutions that represent the people, and private capital interested mainly in property as investment. Local authorities now often feel they have no option but to sign away beloved local areas and landmarks, regardless of public opinion and feeling; and given repeated decisions of this kind, it’s hardly surprising, this week, to find messages on the social networks suggesting that Edinburgh City Council should simply be abolished, and the City Chambers flogged off for development, like everything else.

What we’re witnessing, in other words, is exactly the kind of slow death of local democracy that suits big corporate interests best, as weakened local authorities – with almost no power to raise their own income – are repeatedly forced to ignore the views of the people they supposedly represent, and therefore become increasingly unpopular. Yet the threat to democracy reflected in the plight of our local authorities is not confined to this level of government, and cannot be confronted by abolishing or further weakening it. If the current TITP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) deal between the European Union and the US is concluded, for example, then national governments will also soon find themselves enmeshed in the same kinds of networks of legal and commercial requirements that currently hobble local government decision-making; that is, they will find themselves ever more often obliged to ignore the views of their people, in favour of compliance with legal requirements heavily moulded by corporate lobbying.

And if we want to fight back against this trend, and to start reasserting the power of democratic decision-making at every level, then a robust local democracy is where we have to start. As policies go, it’s counter-intuitive, and likely – at least initially – to be massively unpopular. But as Lesley Riddoch points out in her great book Blossom, if we look at international examples, it’s perfectly clear that what Scotland needs now is not less local government, but much, much more. We currently have half as many local councillors per head as in England, a 20th as many as in Norway, and by far the lowest number per head in western Europe. We need to get rid of our 32 unwieldy and increasingly ineffectual local authorities, restore genuine local democracy to mid-sized towns like Kirkcaldy, Fort William and St Andrews, to revitalise our city councils, and reconnect them with the people they represent.

And before you dismiss this suggestion as absurd and unworkable, think again. Our skimpy, top-down structure of local government has already proved too weak to resist power-grabs by both corporate interests and central government. As we have seen this week, our national institutions at UK level also grow more brittle and corruptible, as they grab power from below, rather than empowering the grass roots; the same fate will also soon engulf the Scottish Government, unless it learns a rapid lesson in the dangers of over-centralisation. To care about democracy is to want more of it, not less; and to be prepared to invest in it, generation after generation.

So for a moment, press the pause-button on that routine pub chat about how politicians and councillors are the problem, not the solution. Look at the statistics, and the audits of real democratic accountability in countries across Europe. And then consider the possibility that our representatives are as they are not because they are too many, but because they are too few; and are therefore fighting a losing battle against the far greater power of corporate lobbying and influence, which increasingly seems able to shape our governance to its own ends, and to ensure that the people’s voices go largely unheard, in the vast onward march of commercial development.