Lesley Riddoch: People power could energise politics

Copenhagen residents are asked what they want from their council on specific policies
Copenhagen residents are asked what they want from their council on specific policies
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If more ordinary people had a say – and were listened to – Scotland might make its green targets, writes Lesley Riddoch

WAS the rapid departure of George Entwhistle a triumph for democracy?

Commentators now insist the shortest-lived director general of the BBC was always the wrong person for the top job. But how will a new boss be chosen? An online petition calling for a public statement of candidates’ aims before interview is almost bound to be ignored. Viewers and listeners matter – but not that much.

Likewise last week’s Holyrood howler. Scots now know further education spending will be cut (not raised) over the next three years. But that bald budgetary fact was already in the public domain. So are Scots any wiser about the future shape of our education system?

Shortlists and budgets alone explain little about policy direction, political intention, the likelihood of growth or the imminence of change. But they’re often as good as we get. Governance in Scotland (and the UK) is still conducted in magician mode – policy detail is kept secret until the “moment is right” and then pulled like a rabbit from the hat when the master is ready.

Transparency and public involvement happen when policy goals are almost reachable – not a second earlier lest disappointment or disagreement kick in. Ironically, of course, limited civic involvement generates suspicion and friction which guarantees the failure of over-zealous targets and in turn weakens civic belief in the improving capacity of the public realm.

Scots do have strategies aplenty – some are aspirational statements of motherhood and apple pie, others are cloaked in generality.

The most definite (and eminently reachable) target is to meet 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity consumption from renewables (along with 11 per cent renewably powered heat and 10 per cent renewably powered transport) by 2020. If these targets are reached Scotland will be on a “renewable” par with Europe’s best performers – Portugal and Denmark.

But they will not turn Scotland “green”. Commuting will still be largely car-based. Modal shift from cars to bikes and public transport has been virtually stagnant over the last decade. Insulation isn’t good enough. Heating is still largely oil- and gas-based and so expensive old people will keep dying of hypothermia in winter – unknown in Nordic nations with substantial Arctic populations. If these realities and behaviours remain, are Scotland’s green targets reachable – indeed are they worth the candle?

Compare and contrast Copenhagen. By 2015 it aims to have the best urban environment of any capital city in the world. By 2025 it aims to be the world’s first carbon neutral city.

To achieve this, the Danes are taking policy, politics, consultation and involvement way beyond any UK council or government by publishing specific pledges for 2015 and 2025 with updates showing current levels of achievement in publicly available annual green accounts. Thus in 2015, 90 per cent of Copenhageners should be able to walk to a park, a beach, a natural area or sea swimming pool in less than 15 minutes (now 60 per cent); 80 per cent of cyclists should feel safe cycling on city streets (now 58 per cent) and rubbish on streets should be removed within eight hours (currently 36 hours at times).

How on earth can Copenhagen politicians wed themselves publicly to such challenging and specific policy goals – which can be achieved only if the public “buys-in” and agencies beyond direct government control drop everything else and drive change?

Well, it does help to have had a century of the horse-trading and compromise that comes with proportional representation. It also helps to have powerful, quasi-sovereign local government, “flat” management styles, one of the lowest income gaps between management and shop floor workers and a “social contract” between state and citizens and employers and workers. High levels of literacy and employee workplace involvement cannot be sniffed at either. All these social goods have helped generate the highest levels of trust in the world. Mind you, that could easily cause Danish city mothers and fathers to get complacent, sit on their laurels, quote statistics and eat bacon. Not a bit of it.

Copenhagen Council adopted the world’s most ambitious green targets after the disappointing 2009 International Climate Change summit – breaking each target down into individual actions. Each year the public is asked: “What will it take to get you to do more (or less) of this?” The response visibly drives policy spending.

Today for example, Copenhagen will probably partly adopt the world’s most modern city bike scheme. Partial and only probable approval is surprising for one of Europe’s free (coin-deposit-operated) city-bike pioneers 20 years ago. But though the scheme needs updating (the bikes have no gears and few parking bays), the Copenhagen public decided better safety was the top priority. So the big spending has gone instead on dedicated bike lanes ten centimetres above roads (and also separate from pavements), cycle priority at junctions, long-distance cycle motorways, cycle and pedestrian-only bridges and state-of-the-art public cycle parking at stations.

Across the central city, six foot-high digital monitors measure how many cyclists pass that day and that year – so cyclists feel part of a bigger, civic, green movement. Bikes can be taken on trains – not up to ScotRail’s measly maximum of four but up to 120 in dedicated bike carriages. The train operator made the decision on commercial grounds after enhanced bike capacity demonstrably boosted passenger numbers.

Another green aim is to serve organic food in 90 per cent of care homes, schools and public canteens by 2015 (currently 60 per cent). How has that been done? According to Anya Hultberg of Copenhagen’s House of Food: “We don’t make converts at our desks.” She and her staff personally (and constantly) visit all the city’s 900 public kitchens. Life-size portraits of catering staff adorn the boarding round construction sites for the latest Metro line. Enhanced public profile encourages responsible decision-making among low-paid catering staff. It’s so joined-up it almost hurts.

Copenhagen’s politicians are conscious that recession has made out-of-town moves unaffordable and have moved quickly to harness the energy and loyalty of young families who are now improving their own urban environment. The result is a fast-growing, youthful city population (the average Copenhagener is a 36-year-old female) – bucking European demographic trends.

Danes know transparency and public involvement are the best tools for setting and reaching ambitious policy objectives. Might Scottish politicians create a target of 2013 to do the same?

• Cycling in Copenhagen – Nordic Revolutions event 4.12.12