Insight: More devo powers to local communities

Cllr David O'Neill is president of Cosla. Picture: Contributed
Cllr David O'Neill is president of Cosla. Picture: Contributed
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Referendum spirit must devolve power to communities, writes David O’Neill.

‘WHAT new powers would you as Cosla president like to see coming to local government?” It is a fairly straightforward question. It is also a question that I have a fairly straightforward answer to.

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Building on the key recommendations from the recent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy which were published in the run-up to the referendum, what I would like to see most coming out of the Smith Commission is that as many new powers as possible are devolved from the centre to local communities.

The old political adage was Power to the People – what I would like to see going forward is real meaningful Power for the People.

After two years of campaigning, the referendum is over and the world has been struck by the passion that has gripped the nation. It is easy to see why. For the first time in decades, democracy has felt truly energised and exciting. The number of people registered to vote reached 4.3 million. A record 85% cast their vote. After decades of declining participation in democracy, people from all parts of Scotland and all walks of life have felt what it is like to have power and authority over their future, and it should surprise no-one that they have grasped that opportunity with both hands.

As we turn to the future, that speaks loudly about how democracy in Scotland must now work. Local people have electrified the debate and proven once and for all that they care passionately about the issues that ­affect them, their families and their communities. And on all sides they have spoken clearly about what they need to happen for their lives to ­improve.

As one chapter in our democratic evolution draws to a close, it is time to think again about what it would take for that to become the new standard for democracy in Scotland.

There’s never been a better time to make the change. For 50 years Scotland has been on a journey in which the voices of local communities have become increasingly irrelevant in the decisions that affect them. It is little wonder that with little say, more and more people have become disillusioned with the whole democratic process.

Despite huge investment, that approach simply hasn’t resolved the big social problems that Scotland faces either. Take that most basic of all measures, life expectancy. In some parts of the country, many people can expect to live well into their 80s or beyond. Only a few streets away, some will be lucky to ever draw a pension. When I first become a local councillor in 1980, I was shocked that in my own part of Scotland the gap was 14 years. Despite the best efforts of the whole of the public sector, the gap has increased to 24 years.

Instead, as a nation we can decide that it is time for a new kind of democracy and we can start to build it now. Countless thousands are already desperately seeking new ways to shape that future. Real change is possible, but achieving it will mean everyone with a stake in Scotland’s future working together to break out of the thinking that for decades has led to power being taken away from communities and put into the hands of distant politicians.

The details will take time, but one thing is for sure. The issues that have inspired millions of Scots have not been about the internal workings of Westminster or Holyrood. They have been about what it would take to improve people’s lives locally, the local services that they need, and how they can have a meaningful say about them.

That is the real prize for democracy, and it is worth fighting for. Take that bold step forward and we can start to really change Scotland. Revert to type and try to take change forward from the centre, and we must accept that disenchantment is inevitable, and pass up on this extraordinary chance to transform lives across the country.

The current period of debate and creativity is a real opportunity to get the democracy our communities deserve. We look forward to the debate that lies ahead, because together we must get this right for the people of Scotland. «