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Participative localism v Kenny MacAskill’s folly

Teenagers in Bolton last month discuss Local Democracy Week.  Perhaps they could give Kenny MacAskill some pointers.


So now we don’t really need local councils. Scotland on Sunday reports that Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill believes local government must change to fit the “slimmed down” pioneers of the police and fire services – Scotland’s single police force has only 14 “local” divisions. The paper also quotes the architect of free personal care, Stewart Sutherland, who says 32 directors of social work is “daft” and the current council system “mad” at a time of economic hardship. The recent Scottish Household survey shows only 22% of Scots believe they can affect their local environment – hardly a vote of confidence in existing councils, some of whose leaders earn more than the First Minister. It is indeed tempting to join the chorus – off with their heads.

But lest Scotland become the land of the unthinking tartan tricoteuse – decapitating problems instead of resolving them – let’s think awhile. If you’re holding a hammer every solution looks like a nail. Yet the missing dimension in Scotland is not large – our councils are already Europe’s largest and beneath three devolved legislatures and one UK parliament we are still Europe’s most centralised state. Our missing layer of governance is a truly local delivery tier.

What lessons have the past four years taught us? Big banks quickly became irresponsible banks. Big contracts hamstrung by “best value” have consistently priced Scottish firms out of procurement. Big supermarkets have resisted government action to restrict the availability of cheap alcohol by loss leading on booze priced cheaper than bottled water.

Big has shown itself to be problematic. But the appallingly low turnout for English police authority elections shows small works no better — when it’s occasional and cynically instrumental .

What’s needed is a consistent, structured and powerful localist agenda. Surprisingly that’s what emerged from Glasgow’s Radisson Hotel this weekend, when 800 left-wing activists gathered for the Radical Independence Convention (RIC).

Ostensibly united by their desire for an independent Scotland, the biggest cheers came for disabled activist Susan Archibald who demanded local action to stop disabled people losing homes after benefit changes; young trade unionist Cat Boyd, “Let’s have a Scotland for the millions not the millionaires”; Gerry Hassan, “The UK is the developed world’s fourth most unequal state – if Scotland becomes the 5th after independence, we’ve achieved nothing”; and Green MSP Patrick Harvie who said local communities should own energy generating capacity & use that income to challenge Scotland’s “tyranny of largeness”.

The message was clear for anyone who cared to listen. Young idealists who want to tackle inequality, ill health and top-down, wrong-sized-democracy are not going to shut up until after 2014. Polite Scotland ignores this movement at its peril.

More SNP centralisation with a veneer of weak consultation mechanisms and over-arching unelected quangos (peopled by yet more members of the great and good) – just won’t cut it.

Small is Beautiful looks equally unlikely to find a champion in Labour. This weekend, Shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint said the party’s considered re-nationalising energy to bring bills under control. A single monolithic, publicly owned “British Power” along with a re-nationalised British Rail might feel good to weary consumers. But that solution’s missing a trick.

Happier, better functioning democracies than the UK encourage public involvement and active ownership at every level – not just the national one. Nordic neighbours Norway and Sweden do indeed have state-owned energy generating companies like Statoil and Vattenfall — but they also have more than a hundred council-owned local energy supply companies. They have large private companies delivering most of the world’s wood pulp for papers – but most are co-operatives. Germany’s central bank has generally behaved itself because most cash is banked with mutually owned local Sparkassen – reflecting the dispersed location of power in German society. As Andy Wightman observed at the RIC event, the mighty Angela Merkel would be unable to enforce Alex Salmond’s council tax freeze because the German Constitution prevents central interference in local matters.

Ironically, the average local council in Scotland (considered too small by Kenny MacAskill) is actually too large, remote and at the same time too weak and shorn of important tasks to be effective at delivery or democracy. Councils representing around 162 thousand people (the Scottish average) can only be strategic. For the purposes of delivery and democratic engagement, councils in towns like Kirkcaldy and St Andrews would be a far better option.

As things stand, Scots are chronically disempowered – we are the least likely to stand for election, know a councillor, bank with a local credit union, work in a co-operative, or jointly and locally own assets like land, libraries, wind farms or village halls. So what difference does the size of government make to us? It is all remote. So if there’s a plague on all their houses, the fewer front doors, the better.

In democratic terms that is cutting off our nose to spite our face.

“Full-blooded” capitalism has landed us in our current mess. But “full-blooded state control” is not the solution. “Full-blooded, democratic localism” is the only dimension Britain has never really explored. That doesn’t mean more toothless community councils, empty “consultation”, or four hour journeys to “local” council HQs instead of the current two hour ones.  It means scrapping the unsustainable “best value” principle that currently guides all public life and replacing it with a new “empowerment” principle – though I’m sure bureaucrats can find a less “happy-clappy” sounding term.

Structures that release the local capacity of Scots to run their own towns, villages, businesses, high streets, energy systems and health care should be the top priority for social and economic recovery. Activities that encourage the formation of local “democratic muscle” and social capital should be funded – centralising, disempowering, empty, top-down structures need to go.

Hopefully Kenny MacAskill  has simply spoken his own mind (always welcome amongst Ministers) or tried a bit of policy kite-flying. As a Government spokesperson said yesterday “We have no plans to merge local authorities.” But look at the recent direction of travel by this government.

Health boards – 14. Police divisions – 14. FE colleges – 13 college regions. Councils- 32.

If a move towards fewer more strategic authorities is combined with the bold re-establishment of hundreds of powerful, tax-raising Orkney and Shetland -sized councils, I’d sing halleluja.

If anything else is afoot, I truly despair.

(This article was first published in The Scotsman, 26 Nov 2012 under the rather vague headline of “Full-on state control is no solution”).

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Essential background reading:  The Silent Crisis (published by The Reid Foundation)

Comments (16)

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  1. Alasdair MacDonald says:

    A point to make here is that until we rid ourselves of politics especialy that moulded by Westminster nothing will change. Get rid of the political parties give Scotland something new and forward thinking about it governance. Localise and empower the communities. Scotland is a community and always has been that’s what makes us the radicals we are. London forged the politics of this country into neat little boxes that manipulates the choices. You have no chance in that system. Holyrood is now just as bad. The so called “house of the common people” has become the jobs for the boys as political parties have become capitalist corporations.
    Get local, that’s the heart of Scotland.

  2. Peter A Bell says:

    As the Scottish Government has no plans to merge local authorities Lesley Riddoch may be getting herself in a tizzy about nothing at all.

    While I share her enthusiasm for localism, I don’t let that enthusiasm blind me to the problems. Not least, the far from insignificant obstacle of profound apathy.

    Let’s get our national government sorted out first. My sense is that independence may well spark enthusiasm for a wave of reforms. The best chance for localism is if it rides that wave.

  3. bellacaledonia says:

    For many political aspects of Scottish life Scotland needs the full powers of Independence. That is not the case for local democracy. There is no need to wait for Indy to begin decentralising powers away from Holyrood and away from large unitary local authorities.

    The SNP national government have done many positive things but – and this is the truth – but they have never once given any indication that taking power away from the centre and putting it in the hands of local communities is a road they intend to travel.

    The mantra of “sorting out national government first” is completely erroneous in this instance. The local democracy apathy you refer to is not being challenged by the SNP in any meaningful way.


    1. Peter A Bell says:

      Let me make it clear from the outset that I am very much in favour of localism. (Although perhaps not so hugely enamoured of the neologism.) One of the reasons I am a lifelong supporter of Scotland’s independence is my conviction that good democratic government is never more distant from the governed than is consistent with its function.

      Having thus established my credentials, so to speak, I have to say that I entertain serious doubts about whether this is an appropriate time to be prioritising the restructuring of local government or the devolution of powers to local authorities. I stress again that this is not occasioned by any antipathy towards the principle of restructuring and devolution, but merely sever doubts about the practicality and desirability of undertaking such a project while our nation is engaged upon the great debate about its constitutional future.

      My feeling is that all our energies should first and foremost be devoted to securing independence. I am firmly persuaded that repatriation of all powers to the Scottish Parliament is the essential prerequisite to the reformation of our country. The fewer distractions there are from the essential cause of independence, the better I like it.

      And I am ever aware that the converse is true. That anti-independence forces are well served by anything that diverts attention from the fight for a YES vote. That unionists welcome anything which can be used to make the process of reaffirming our sovereignty seem more complicated and frightening.

      When British parties begin to hint at enthusiasm for localism, as British Labour has lately done, I immediately sense the odour of a large rodent. I certainly do not naively assume that there is anything other than an ulterior motive in such interest. My suspicion is that the unionists envisage the possibility of more powerful local authorities being used as a weapon against the Scottish Government and/or the independence movement. It surely doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a large local authority under the control of a British political party using whatever powers it may obtain to further a partisan agenda as opposed to serving the people in its locality.

      I also have considerable doubts about whether people are ready for localism. I don’t doubt the worthiness of the intentions of people like Lesley Riddoch. But I am not at all certain that the enthusiasm of a few political anoraks will be sufficient to carry people along on an project to reform local government. Look at the flunked attempts to set up regional parliaments in England. Look at the fiasco over elected police commissioners. Apathy and inertia are powerful forces that should not be lightly discounted.

      Sometimes a noble cause is not enough. Sometimes it isn’t better to try and fail than not to make the effort. Sometimes failure just carries too heavy a price.

      I fear an attempt to drive forward a programme of localism at this time would be doomed to fail – not least due to public apathy. And I suspect that such a failure might set back the cause of localism by perhaps as much as several decades. Why take that risk when we are on the verge of an ideal moment for such a project?

      A YES vote in Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 will release a veritable tidal wave of enthusiasm for exploring all manner of ways in which our nation may be improved. Localism can ride that wave. That is its time. And even if the vote is NO – for, unlike opponents of constitutional change, we must show ourselves prepared to meet any circumstance – the nation will still be open to some kind of reform. We will be looking for something else to get our teeth into. We will be facing a severe threat to existing devolution from the British state. We will need something to unite behind. We will need a national project of some kind.

      Whatever way you look at it, a campaign for greater localism is best left until after the referendum.

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        Bear in mind Peter it was Kenny MacAskill who raised the idea of taking local government back to the Stone Age in Scotland on Sunday. As Lesley mentioned he may just be flying kites but after the anti-democratic move to centralise police forces we have to be vigilant if we want to champion the idea of localism.

        1. Peter A Bell says:


          Lesley Riddoch appears to be attributing remarks to Kenny MacAskill on the basis of a report in a newspaper well-known for its anti-SNP leanings. And she seems to be accepting without due scepticism that newspaper’s interpretation of those remarks. I would advise more caution. Particularly in light of the fact that the Scottish Government has subsequently stated that there are no plans for altering the structure of local government at this time.

          Why would anybody take the allegations of the unionist media over a categorical statement by the administration?

      2. Stui says:

        Well that sounds a bit like a jam tomorrow argument Peter. I think that Ms Riddoch is exactly right in what she says, its striking and problematic for people who live or have experience in other european countries to see how centralised the UK is, it is nothing to do with “anoraky” type people. It is true that Lamont said something about powers for regional, I am sure that what she means is to weaken Holyrood in favour of regions, this does not make the idea of decentralisation wrong. Ms Riddoch points out the regions are too big and I am sure that Lamont does not mean to break up regions. I spoke at length to some of my Labour supporting family about this recently and they dont “get it” why localism is important, but the trouble is that the SNP dont seem yet to “get it” either, and they of all people should know better. Worrying signs from the SNP McAskill, but also what about SNP trying to get their hands on the CEC taxes earlier this year? much better would have been for Swinney to say that CEC taxes belong to the local communities and will not be collected centrally when this tax is finally repatriated. Localism is not just about services it is also about economic recovery, I see links between the health of the local economy where I live in CH and the fact that regional and local democracy is very strong. Tax raising is at local level with a smaller amount sent to the central government. This discussion is not a distraction from the YES debate this is absolutely a reason why many people would vote YES if they saw progress on localism from the SNP before 2014. If you see that the Holyrood government is giving you control over your life locally, it surely makes you feel more empowered to put your trust in Holyrood with a YES vote nationally.

  4. chris15474 says:

    How anyone can say the Holyrood is “just as bad” as Westminster is beyond me personally. No Government will ever be perfect and suit everyone and I agree, wholeheartedly, with more local engagement. But Holyrood as a relatively young parliament is doing ok, for me, but could do better.
    It takes me back to my days in Community Education at Uni, run by the awful Margaret Curran MP, I was considered a maverick because I saw no reason to set the agenda when meeting with local community groups. Let them lead and inform the dabate I said..No…No..they have to be led by us. To me it was their community, I didn’t live there so how can I possibly know what the want or need? At some stage Holyrood will have to devolve powers more locally, it is inevitable after we win in 2014, because the people will demand it. Let’s not get uptight the now, there’s a referendum to win.

  5. Alasdair MacDonald says:

    What can be said about Holyrood is that it has now backfired on the British state with a majority SNP vote. The set up is just like Westminster all you need to do is look in at FM questions and ask yourself what it achieves other than provide the media the derisory gimmicks of showground politics. Holyrood was to be the devolved puppet government of the New Labour/Old Tory party which rode high on Scotland’s anti-Thatcher stance. No way did they ever envisage not having a majority vote in Scotland. The SNP have upset the apple cart and only when we rid ourselves of all the trappings of Westminster politics can Holyrood start to do better as you say.

    Independence needs to bring something new going forward or we fall down the same hole that is centralised government. Its history repeating itself. In the eyes of a remote Scot is Edinburgh any different to London? You could look at the “Statutes of Iona” or ask a Shetlander if he feels Scottish.

    The example set by the SNP by bringing parliament to the regions is a great start, and one that was also a historic success centuries ago. That’s the foundations of the dawn of a new era for our Nation. and with Independence its only the beginning. Everyone should have a chance to play a part from our youngest to our oldest. Or risk going down the same road where public apathy towards politics and governance sets the standard and we remain British in disguise.

  6. annie says:

    “I also have considerable doubts about whether people are ready for localism”
    Oh, I’m not sure about that, Mr Bell. You just have to take a look at the amount of Scottish allotments sprouting up all over the shire, in the most unlikely of places and situations, to see that people are very much into ‘localism’ when given half the chance.
    http://www.sags.org.uk/ just two examples.
    The beauty of ‘localism’ is the social interaction, the shared skills, the social support, the information sharing… in fact, just about EVERYTHING the neoliberal British governments have deprived us of for the last 40 years! ‘Power to the People’ is exactly the right message Indy needs to get across, imo.

  7. Peter A Bell says:


    You are confused. I did not say that the idea of decentralisation wrong. In fact, I went to some trouble to say the very opposite. My argument is merely that the time is not right for a major push on localism. And that such a push will have a vastly better chance of success after a referendum. Others don’t seem to be happy to turn a blind eye to the possibility of disastrous failure. I am too much of a pragmatist for that.

    But at least you recognise the devious intent behind Lamont’s notions of localism. I’m not convinced others do. There seems to be an attitude that localism is such a wonderful idea it doesn’t much matter how it is implemented, let’s just bash on and hope that it all works out in the end. I am too much of a realist for that.

    The point about Crown Estates revenues is illustrative. Some people are insisting that powers in this area be devolved directly to local authorities. They seem prepared to blithely disregard the fact that this means the UK Government would effectively have a free hand in setting the terms on which the powers are devolved. And even if that were not so, allowing the UK government to by-pass Holyrood altogether in this way sets an exceedingly dangerous precedent.

    I really do wish people would rein in their enthusiasm at least enough to allow them to think things through.

    1. Peter A Bell says:

      Couple of typos in that post. Apologies for that. Unfortunately, there is no way to edit or even delete posts. As I now recall, the atrocious comment facility is the reason I usually avoid posting here. This will be the last time.

    2. Stui says:

      Peter, ah sorry see what you mean, I didnt intend to imply that you were against decentralisation, your support for decentralisation is of course clear in your post. I was trying to say that there is no reason that the snp cannot go ahead now with decentralisation which will strengthen local economies and services. Likely to increase the YES vote is a plus. The point about CEC tax is that it should not be decided by Holyrood or Westminister, it should be raised, set and used at local level (i would argue at a unit gov level much smaller than the present local authority). It is nothing to do with Holyrood. If Westminister (unlikely) decided to hand over control to local authorities this should be supported by Holyrood, because it is the right thing to do.

      1. muttley79 says:

        Maybe a good idea to put in a written constitution if we get a Yes vote. A Yes vote in the referendum would give a future Scottish Government control over a number of taxes (quite a lot in fact), meaning council tax can be devolved to local government.

  8. Doug Daniel says:

    I think there should be fewer councils – I see no need for separate Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray councils, just as I see no need for having the area that most of us would probably consider to be “Glasgow” split up into about 7 or 8 councils. However, I say this with an eye on how places like Norway are split up.

    To me, our councils/unitary authorities/whatever you want to call them are the equivalent of what most countries call Counties. Norway has 14 of them, which is not just considerably fewer than our 32 councils, but also happens to be the same as the number of health boards and police divisions which we have. That suggests to me that 14 is perhaps a good number for dividing this level of governance.

    But then Norway also has 430 municipalities. Now, we have community councils, which are perhaps the nearest equivalent, but at around 1,200, this is clearly too far in the opposite direction (30 in Aberdeen alone). More importantly, does anybody have a clue what community councils actually do?

    I think independence is just the first step along Scotland’s path towards achieving more appropriate levels of government. But I do think we need independence first, because we already have three layers of governance – councils, Holyrood and Westminster – and there’s only so many powers to go around. I think much of the centralisation that the SNP in particular gets accused of is due, at least in some part, to a body of politicians seeking their place in the governance structure. This is partly why devolution is not a suitable long-term solution for Scotland, because it means we have three levels of governance where there should only be two, and until we square that circle (flatten that triangle?), we can’t really get on with fixing the lowest level of governance.

  9. An excellent article by Lesley Riddoch and a good debate. I certainly think we need to be talking about some of these issues as we make the argument for the kind of Scotland we want to live in.

    However, I think the challenge for those of us who support greater localism is twofold. Firstly people are mostly disenchanted with and disengaged from the local government they have. Local Government is perceived to be dull, bureaucratic, wasteful, unresponsive and permeated with a jobs for the boys culture. Secondly there is an assumption that more councils would require duplication of that and cost more.

    If we want to make an argument for more localism we need to show how it would be better, more accountable and more efficient. We need to be able to how how we are not proposing a multiplication of the existing bureaucracies but rather a focus on locally accountable front line staff responding not to a civil service machine but to local people’s needs.

    There is sometimes a valid argument for efficiencies of scale but generally the larger a bureaucracy is the less efficient and effective it becomes. Small can be beautiful, but we need some analysis of costs to advance the debate.

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