What does Lord Ashcroft’s poll mean for Scotland’s local councils? A quarter are Labour-run and all but one is located in the west of Scotland – a former heartland that seems intent on snubbing the People’s Party on 7 May. Of course local elections aren’t general elections, there are two long years before those polls and turnout in 2012 was a miserable 38 per cent.
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You could say no-one cares about local democracy. Or you could look at the row over Castle Toward in Argyll and Bute and say “local” is so wrong-sized in Scotland that something has to change.
Residents in South Cowal have seen Dunoon falter since its doon the watter heydays and watched the American navy come and go. They’ve seen small businesses close, school rolls fall and the once-famous Queen’s Hall and Town Hall both fall into disrepair.
But then a rare opportunity arose. Last year a former primary teacher, local garage owner, charity director and wildlife artist formed South Cowal Community Development Company (SCCDC) to buy Castle Toward and help regenerate the whole area.
The 143-acre estate includes the ruins of a 15th-century castle and a Victorian baronial home built by a former Lord Provost of Glasgow, with Chinese ponds, woodland and spectacular views across the Firth of Clyde. It was run by Glasgow Corporation as an outdoor education centre before passing to Argyll and Bute Council after local government reorganisation in 1996.
Thereafter, Castle Toward was temporarily shut on health and safety grounds in 2009, then put up for sale. Every month since 2013, £22,000 has been lost in maintenance and security costs while potential employment, new employees and incoming revenue have also been lost.
So SCCDC drew up plans to lease the mansion house to a national outdoor education company and turn the gatehouse buildings into a tea room, bunkhouse, self-catering units and retail workshops.
Under the 2003 Land Reform Act, the community voted to proceed, was awarded a £750,000 grant from the Scottish Land Fund and had six months to finalise a deal.
But then the council seemed to backtrack, set the sale price at a whopping £1.75 million and voted to lend SCCDC £1m to reach the asking price – repayable with interest. There was no way the community could afford this bizarre deal. Meanwhile, an expert examination by architect John McAslan and Arup, the structural engineers, estimated basic repairs would cost around £5m and property experts Savills valued the estate at just £850,000.
The council will not sell for that more realistic sum.
Despite thousands of community hours drawing up the bid and enlisting support from HIE, the Scottish Land Fund, the 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, Dick Walsh, leader of Argyll and Bute Council, seems determined to stand by his inflated sale price and thwart the wishes of his own constituents.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
Politicians regularly bemoan passive, apathetic people who won’t work to turn local communities around. Castle Toward demonstrates that the opposite dynamic more often stifles progress.
Community buyouts have a good track record, the Scottish Government has advised councils “Best Value” doesn’t mean a blind sale to the highest bidder, all sorts of funds are available to community groups but not private buyers, and the buyout would empower local citizens and create jobs.
Still the answer is no and there is nothing anyone can do. Because this little local difficulty is also part of a bigger picture.
Scottish councils feel threatened by a Scottish Government which has effectively frozen their income, removed their control over police and fire, wants them to merge budgets with the NHS under local health and social care partnerships and threatens to withhold cash unless they employ new teachers.
But at the same time councils, some half the size of European countries, lord it over communities with the same paralysing clout.
There is only one constant: top-down governance.
So here we are. Scottish councils are betwixt and between, unloved by local people because they are too large and remote, and unloved by a Scottish Government which doubts their legitimacy and efficiency.
Scottish communities are flavour of the month but remain absolutely powerless in the face of intransigent councils – a situation that won’t be radically altered by the forthcoming Community Empowerment Bill. Even though Cosla’s commission on strengthening local democracy has boldly called for the creation of a hundred councils and the devolution of money and power to communities, there are no plans to create powerful parish or town councils with statutory function and budgets.
No-one really wants to get involved in a difficult redistribution of power within Scotland even though it is long overdue and desperately needed. Not the SNP, whose new bill basically allows volunteers to burn themselves out in uneven battles with council legal departments. Not Labour which wants to shift power out of Holyrood but suggests local talking shops as a driver of democratic change.
So we are left with intractable, bitterly fought stand-offs like Castle Toward.
The solution cannot be an order from Nicola Sturgeon nor a two-year wait to find new councillors willing to undertake three-hour round trips to Argyll and Bute HQ in distant Lochgilphead. This model of local democracy is broken and a sticking plaster will not make it function any better.
Councils are wrong-sized, power is held at the wrong level, participation in the democratic process is low and community buyouts only allow the most organised to rescue their patch from remote controlled stagnation.
Argyll and Bute Council has one last chance to offer Castle Toward to the community for £850,000 on Thursday. If they don’t, supporters of the community will back legitimate complaints to Audit Scotland about the behaviour of councillors.
In the medium term, the Community Empowerment Bill must be amended to ensure no council can whisk assets off the market after a community has complied with a lengthy process to buy. In the longer term, Scottish local government must be reformed.