Peter de Vink: Government is throttling life out of local democracy

Having had five years of exposure to local government, I am saddened by the way the Scottish Government is throttling this important aspect of democratic life slowly to lifelessness.

Peter de Vink earned just £10 an hour as a Midlothian councillor. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Peter de Vink earned just £10 an hour as a Midlothian councillor. Picture: Ian Rutherford

When I was a councillor I was paid the sum of £15,000 per annum for which I undertook a 30-plus hour week. It worked out at the equivalent of £10 per hour. Clearly I did not do it for the money but by paying so little one tends to get a quality of intellect and ambition that lacks vision and drive amongst most of the elected representatives.

Midlothian Council is trying to hire a chairman as well as a no voting member for its Audit Board. The jobs were advertised and I applied for the no voting member. No-one else applied as there was absolutely no payment attached to these important positions. They are trying again and I hope someone who is publicly spirited may apply as chairman, but I am not holding my breath.

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Community councils are another vital tool in local democracy and again there is no compensation for the chairman nor its board members. There is only a minimal compensation from the local authority but it is laughable in size (less than £1,000) and as a result there is nothing like the commitment given by local citizens. Those who give their time tend to be hugely publicly spirited and are in my eyes true heroes.

Why has the Scottish Government dumbed down local democracy? The answer has to be because they are bereft of vision and see any reward as a capitalist bribe. When Alex Salmond was in his last week as FM I pleaded with him to give each of the 600 Scottish community councils an annual budget of £20,000 per annum which would be administrated by the local authority. Those community councils willing to receive this could obtain a government-built website. In my presence he dictated an instruction entitled “My Legacy” addressed to his successor and the Cabinet Minister for Finance. It would have cost £12 million plus the marginal costs of the website but nothing happened as his successor lacked his vision.

Or perhaps the civil servants won the day. They tend almost all to have an inbuilt conservative approach to things that are not originated by their own kith and kin. How often did I not have to hear “It cannot be done”, or “It is not Good Governance or Due Process” to any proposal that I would come up with, ignoring that I had 45 years of commercial experience under my belt. It drove me to despair.

Also undervalued are the many volunteers that do such selfless service to their community. In Midlothian some 32,000 citizen undertake a minimum of 18 hours per month doing voluntary work. One would have thought that these volunteers would be hugely valued but that was not how I experienced it at all. They should receive dignity and respect and not being taken for granted or ignored.

Unless the Scottish Government pays serious attention to local democracy and the voluntary sector it deserves to be send packing at the earliest opportunity.

Peter H J de Vink has worked as an investment manager and until recently was an independent councillor in Midlothian.