Lesley Riddoch: Local democracy needs a hand

Politics on a local level is made to seem like an expensive luxury but it doesn't have to be that way, says Lesley Riddoch

Taxpayer-funded golden handshakes for public sector workers have been the cause of a row. Picture: Getty Images/Purestock

A minority of Scots will vote in local elections next month, unfamiliar with the politicians they are electing and spurred on by national not local issues.

The only Sunday paper coverage of these elections was the headline: “IndyRef2 and Brexit set to turn usually boring council elections into political earthquake.”

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So far, so normal.

Of course elections in “lower” tiers of democracy are often no more than proxy battles for arguments decided by national legislatures. But it’s some time since Scottish elections were fought entirely on the basis of Westminster issues. Love it or hate it, Holyrood and the Scottish political realm has developed a legitimacy all of its own.

Not so local government, even though it’s been here far longer.

Last time round there was a miserable council election turnout of just 38 per cent. Why?

Well, Scottish councils are both too large and too weak representing an average population of almost 170k against the European average of 14k, and depending on Holyrood for cash, legitimacy and permission to spend.

The row over taxpayer-funded “golden goodbye” deals for public sector workers is a case in point. The cost of “exit deals” rose by £8 million last year to almost £120m - most spent by councils. This matters in more ways than profligacy and blatant unfairness. It persuades folk that breaking up Scotland’s massive councils would be impossible because a welter of highly paid executives would have to be created (and later “let go”) at great expense.

In Scotland, genuine local democracy has been made to appear like an expensive luxury. But it’s so different in neighbouring countries.

The ratio of councillors to citizens represented is 1;400 in highly efficient Germany but 1;4270 in Scotland. In Norway one in 81 people stands for local election whilst in Scotland (with the same population of five million) it’s just one in 2071. Does that have something to do with the fact Scotland has 32 massive councils and Norway has 429 tiny ones?

Of course.

As the late Paddy Bort observed in Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Silent Crisis report, there are 1,222 councillors in the whole of Scotland but 21,279 in Baden Wurttemberg alone. This federal “Land” or region has twice Scotland’s population but 18 times our councillor cohort.

Cosla’s Commission for Strengthening Local Democracy insists Scotland needs at least 100 councils. But inside Holyrood next to no-one is interested.

You could say the local dimension is another casualty of the all-consuming primacy of the constitutional question. Except this too is a constitutional issue into which life could have been breathed by an opposition party that cared. Instead there are just lazy attacks on the SNP’s centralising tendencies without any serious alternative proposals for a genuinely community-sized system of local democracy.

Yet alternative models are just an hour’s flight away.

Speaking at a meeting of Nordic Horizons in the Scottish Parliament last month, a Director of KS (the Norwegian equivalent of Cosla) explained that most small municipalities in Norway have part time directors of education who combine that role with responsibility for other sectors like agriculture, business and culture.

According to Frode Lindtvedt; “You don’t need a full-time director for each sector. The important thing is full responsibility remains with the council – that stays small. But how that responsibility is exercised can vary.”

The average director of a small municipality (juggling several roles) is paid the equivalent of £60-70k per annum. Since the Norwegian kronor is two to three times stronger than sterling that represents an even lower real Norwegian wage. Councillors there are paid less than their Scottish counterparts and are entitled to unpaid release from work for 12 days a year. But since councils are small, most meetings are held in the evening because journey times home are short and that reduces disruption to councillors’ day-jobs.

The key to providing services in municipal Norway is cooperation. In Scotland, control over fire and police was centralised. In Norway a small kommune of 3,000 people is still responsible for fire and police, but will seek to cooperate with neighbours. One of the reasons there are so many tunnels is to share fire engines with neighbours. It all works so well that a recent state attempt to merge councils failed miserably, and may contribute to a defeat for the ruling Høyre (Conservative) party in this autumn’s general election.

Sweden has even more powerful local councils. Anyone earning less than £35k per annum pays all their income tax to the local council and none to central government; financed by higher rate earners and corporation tax. I was embarrassed to explain how the share-out of cash works here. “We send almost all our cash to Westminster which sends some back to Holyrood through gritted teeth, which in turn sends some money to councils so large most Scots don’t even know the candidates.”

The first time I had to offer this explanation my Swedish interogator asked something very important; “Don’t you trust yourselves?”

Evidently, we don’t. Voters, politicians and professionals are united in their mistrust of and even contempt for the idea of vigorous local control. None believe the human capacity exists to do the job right.

No matter that their pessimism is disproved by every community project or buyout which springs up to fill the gaps left by remote, over-sized councils. Yet the myth of local inadequacy and apathy persists.

That’s why the Electoral Reform Society has backed a campaign “Act as if you own the place” which will see dozens of hustings across Scotland in which local communities decide on their own priorities and then put council candidates through their paces. Like land reform, it’s a vital but thorny issue being tackled outwith the realm of paid, professional politics.

Only the Greens have seriously questioned the stultifying, inefficiency of Scotland’s big is beautiful democratic fixation. It’s ironic that although their clout at Holyrood won an extra £160m for council services, the Greens are routinely excluded from panels and polling analysis around the local elections on the BBC and STV.

That’s unfair of course, but there is only one battle in the script – the dust-up between the SNP and Tories over Labour’s lost seats.

That’s not good enough.

Local elections are not just about national party rosettes. The pity is that devolution has made local democracy in Scotland weaker, not stronger. Which candidate will tackle that?