Lesley Riddoch: Time to put communities and small councils at the heart of local democracy in Scotland

As she prepares to deliver the Electoral Reform Society’s State of Scottish Democracy Lecture in Dunfermline on Thursday, Lesley Riddoch looks at alternatives to our current system

Will the recently launched phase two of the Scottish Government’s consultation Democracy Matters transform communities in Scotland?

Sadly, probably not.

Democracy Matters kicked off in 2018. The process ground to a halt before Covid, concluding “communities need control over decisions that affect their lives”.

A sunrise scene at the capital city Torshavn in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Picture: Getty ImagesA sunrise scene at the capital city Torshavn in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Picture: Getty Images
A sunrise scene at the capital city Torshavn in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Picture: Getty Images

Absolutely. But acknowledging the problem ain’t fixing it.

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Local government in Scotland is in a seriously hard-to-fix state – reformed in 1973 by Ted Heath, who reduced 400 councils to 53 district and nine regional authorities and then in 1996 by John Major, who reduced these to 32 single-tier authorities – a level of centralisation not imposed on England where 10,480 parish and burgh councils have an average annual budget of £1 million, dwarfing Scotland’s 1,200 community councils which run on a miserable £400 per annum. Thus, Scotland’s councils are the largest in the developed world with an average 175,000 inhabitants, compared to the EU average of 10,000, and a remote, massive, bureaucratised structure of “local” governance that’s been wearily accepted by just about everyone.

That’s not fixable without serious reforming intent. And the revived Democracy Matters 2 process has none.

Instead, its attention is focused on community groups beyond the formal democratic process, because they patently work.

Over the last 25 years, thousands of Scottish citizens in 350 community trusts have taken over everything from islands and schools to hydro-electric dams, petrol pumps, affordable housing, restaurants, mental health services and creches. They’ve done it without formal qualifications, prior experience or long-term funding. They’ve transformed the shape of land ownership and proved that highly motivated local volunteers care enough to run the vital assets councils, churches, quangos, lairds and charities have left behind.

So why not give these self-starters more powers – over planning and budget? After all, these skilful, unpaid volunteers cost the public purse next to nothing. That’s the attraction to a cash-strapped government – and the rub.

Development Trust volunteers grapple daily with rules and regulations that occupy armies of highly paid professionals in every formal wing of government. And they cannot take on more powers or budgets without dependable core funding to pay local directors. But if that happens and control over planning and some budgets are devolved, membership-led trusts will be turned into mini-councils, expected to tackle every local problem without statutory powers, a dependable, long-term funding stream or the democratic validation of community-wide elections.

Is it simpler to forget the mess that is formal local democracy and concentrate on these feisty community groups instead?

Or – a revolutionary thought – why not do both? As they do in neighbouring countries.

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Norwegians have long understood independence to mean rule by locals, not rule by Oslo. Their 1814 Constitution legislated for each parish to become a municipal council almost a century before the national breakaway from Sweden. As a result, this country with the same population as Scotland, has almost 400 tiny, powerful councils. Yet that’s not been a recipe for the council bankruptcies currently sweeping England.

Norway’s small councils double up portfolios, cooperate with neighbours and hire Education Directors who are also part-time teachers. They don’t have highly-paid officials. Home lies a walk not two day’s drive away, so council meetings are held in the evenings, day-jobs can continue and councillors aren’t paid. Poorer councils are supported by central transfers and very small councils cooperate with neighbours which allows some challenge on ideas and the best ways of working, something private outsourcing companies and large ‘monopoly’ councils do not entertain.

If democracy really matters, participation rates should be vitally important. 1 in 88 Norwegians stands for election, compared with 1 in 2071 in Scotland.

In short, we are flaring local energy, know-how and passion out of our democratic system like no other country and leaving communities to scale the bureaucratic equivalent of Mount Everest to achieve buyouts as the price of any involvement.

It could be otherwise.

Vágur on the southernmost Faroese island of Suðuroy‎ has just 1377 inhabitants, but is (perhaps) the smallest town in the world with an Olympic size swimming pool, built by locals for a quarter of the full price, on donated land.

That happened because Vágur has a tiny, go-ahead ultra-local council… and a swimming star. After Pál Joensen won a medal at the 2010 European Championships, a radio commentator said: “Someone should build that man a pool, and name it after him”. So Vágur Council did.

Páls Høll (Paul’s Hall) opened in 2015 and prompted this former fishing community to create an “experience economy” with such positive memories of childhood that departing youngsters would return to start families. It worked. The population is rising after 70 years of steady decline and there’s now a new multi-sports hall, a Sports High School and 485 per cent more visitor accommodation to cope with the influx of young sportspeople, families and tourists.

According to former mayor Dennis Holm: “The more remote you are, the more power you need locally.”

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The Faroese system does just that, with 30 tiny councils for a population of 55 thousand where each receives 20 per cent of income tax in a fixed formula. That certainty lets pint-sized councils act where larger councils would squabble over location for years and finally procure projects at several times the micro council cost. No wonder the Faroese had an 88 per cent turnout at the last elections with hundreds of candidates.

That’s local democracy. What the Scottish Government proposes is not and if it leans too heavily on unpaid local volunteers, Democracy Matters may accidentally break the camel’s back.

The democratic solution is to create a new tier of town, island and genuinely local councils, so community trusts are free to run manageable projects and not feel forced to become de-facto local authorities on the cheap.

Lesley Riddoch is a broadcaster, journalist and land reform campaigner



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