Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Local democracy and the Local Governance Review in turbulent times – James Henderson

The New Deal for Local Government, also known as the ‘Verity House Agreement’, between the Scottish Government and COSLA signed in June this year returned to themes of:

  • ‘local-by-default, national-by-agreement’ (European Charter of Local Self-Government);
  • emphasis on Community Planning Partnerships;
  • completing the Local Governance Review (LGR) initiated in 2018.

The LGR could provide a space in which we can hold onto the complex challenges in seeking a ‘just, sustainable transition’ and, in particular, in seeking shared purpose and opportunity rather than descending into socially destructive polarisation and culture wars. The sorts of questions to consider in working towards practical proposals for local democratic reform and decision-making powers will include:

Which layer of ‘local’?

Geographically, we have options to organise democratically in at least four broad layers: regional (e.g. regional economic partnerships); sub-regional (cities, counties); localities (towns, districts); and local communities of place. Perhaps even smaller local neighbourhoods too. It seems unlikely that democratic structures at just one level would be sufficient to support effective change across all these different layers of organising.

Varieties of local decision-making?

Discussions of democracy tend to focus on decision-making bodies, such as councils and other public sector bodies, while ignoring other types of decision-making. For instance:

  • community-based decision-making, sometimes called ‘commoning’, that can take place  within and across local communities of place, interest and identity (see for instance, Scottish Community Alliance member bodies).
  • economic decision-making, including within companies, institutions and representative bodies – and the roles of trades unions and worker representation; cooperatives, employee and community/member-owned organisations; and customer advocacy bodies.

Which types of democratic process?

While representative activities are central to the workings of a democratic state, and sometimes community and economic bodies too, there is a richer range of options to take into account, including:

  • participatory democracy to broaden engagement, e.g. participatory budgeting, community forums, community sector bodies, action research;
  • deliberative democracy to deepen shared understandings and make recommendations, such as citizen juries and citizen assemblies;
  • informed dialogue/debate via local, community and social media, local digital hubs, community arts, adult learning, schools etc.

How to suitably resource?

Taking into account supporting the range of democratic activities (as above – and including payments, training and access) as well as ‘the spend’ (budgets, investment funds etc.) and policy-making that give power and meaning to local democracy – so going beyond talking-shops.

Democratic good health?

Democratic practice at all levels needs effective leadership, informed participation, credible ‘representative-ness’, and transparency/accountability – and for all types of practice including those relating to community-based and economic decision-making. Poor practices reduce trust and effectiveness and risk increasing polarisation and toxic conflicts; committed practice can renew local democracy, where suitably resourced.

Inclusive democracy

This requires deepening the access and participation of ‘the hard-to-reach, easy-to-ignore’ (see What Works Scotland report) e.g. children and young people; people with disabilities and mental health issues; house-bound older people; and marginalised, low-income communities.

Ecologically focused and socially just decision-making

The importance of bringing into democratic activities the needs and rights of those living in poverty, of future generations, and of the survival of ecological/natural systems – advocacy with teeth within democratic processes.

Some examples of local options to spur discussion

Local public structures – could include:

  • the potential of Development Councils (see 2018 Commonweal report) to lead local sustainable development, perhaps at a district level.
  • better-resourced Community Councils, re-imagined as perhaps like England’s Town/Parish Councils with certain tax-raising powers (local precept) and a service focus. Although these, too, lack the scale of resources and powers of many local municipal bodies in other parts of Western Europe, they might be considered a first step in that direction.
  • given the existing strengths of Community Councils (see SCDC and What Works Scotland report), emphasising their potential as local hubs for more widely strengthening local democratic participation.

Community-led bodies – could include:

Hybrid bodies – working across public, community and economic decision-making:

  • most organisations and institutions are ‘built’ to work in either public, community or economic settings. Community anchor organisations, for example, are community-led and -run although they create particular capacities to do some public service and commercial business activity too. We might well need to imagine local collaborations that can bring these different cultures together for joined-up local decision-making, perhaps by creating public-community partnerships hubs.
  • local citizen assemblies facilitated by Climate Action Hubs, such as those developing through partnership between the Scottish Communities Climate Action Network and Scottish Government.
  • local generative economic development networks, learning from the community-wealth building approach in Preston.

Organic change through working models?
Since Devolution in 1999, there have been a number of policy initiatives seeking to develop local decision-making, community-led regeneration and community empowerment including Social Inclusion Partnerships, the 2009 Community Empowerment Action Plan, the 2011 Christie Commission on public service reform and 2016’s Health and Social Care Partnerships. There is no simple answer as to how well these have worked in empowering local decision-making, and arguably community ownership and land reform have been equally crucial in increasing the scope of local decision-making. Nevertheless, there is the sense of ‘centralisation’ having been the more powerful force at work.

In this context, can the LGR provide space to begin to scale-up local democracy? There are inevitably good reasons to be somewhat sceptical, but there remains the urgent need to generate democratically credible, nimble, and action-focused options for our troubled times. The following are three policy pointers to support debate:

 Creating a menu of local democratic options/models: both strands of the LGR could generate three or four pragmatic models to extend local decision-making. The ongoing learning from each model can then be shared in ‘real time’ to support wider developments across Scotland. In this way, committing to working across two or more of the ‘local’ tiers and with the potential to have more immediate wider impacts rather than awaiting the results three to five years down the line.

Suitable resourcing to meet aspirations: local government and the public sector more generally are already stretched financially, including in relation to investing in preventative spend and the need to run ‘new’ and ‘old’ services concurrently until the latter are no longer relevant. However, the development of both a ‘just green transition’ and ‘preventative spend’ require investment and point to the potential to make local democratic development integral to such change. Alongside the necessary inputs from the public purse to support democratic development, there could be scope to work in parallel and creatively to build locally controlled investment funds, for instance, as per development of local renewables via community development trusts; via community-owned housing; tourism taxes; City-region deals; Crown Estates Scotland income; the auctioning of sea-bed plots.

Establishing a Democracy Centre and Network: This would facilitate, educate and monitor the deepening of democracy across all layers and all forms of community and economic decision-making. Fundamental here would be a training programme for developing collaborative democratic leadership that can help local leaders ride the waves of these turbulent times yet stay focused on anti-poverty, ecologically sustainable and practical change.

James Henderson undertakes participatory research and policy development, and worked within the What Works Scotland Research Programme (2014-19) and recently on the Data Civics Project at Edinburgh Futures Institute (2022-3). He writes in a personal capacity.

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