Mike Vickers' Blog

May 6, 2012

Local Democracy – Localism

Filed under: DHI SPIF, Politics, Scotland — derryvickers @ 6:47 am

I am inspired, by a SPIF (Scottish Policy Innovation Forum) event on 1 May entitled ‘The New English Localism: How Real and How Relevant, to think again on the relevance and value of local democracy.

There were two main speakers at SPIF: John Raine of Birmingham University talking about the English Localism Act 2011 and Duncan Maclennan of St Andrews University reviewing aspects of Localism. By the way, the English Localism law underpins Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. 

Neither speaker saw localism below the council level.  In Scotland there are 32 councils (considered large by European standards by population) but only Community Councils below them.  Community Councils are statutory bodies but with little money and few teeth.  I contrast this to northern Europe and Norway in particular with 10 times the degree of local presentation through community councils which do have real teeth.  As an example our town has a Community Council but it also started a Town Management Group some five years ago – this is a non-elected body but receives a non-trivial annual grant from the Council. One of the speakers also brought up the point that Community Development Projects are sprouting up across Scotland, these are projects often created by well-intentioned individuals but are hardly democracy and we are starting one too!

There is of course a dichotomy:

  1. Economies of scale favour centralised government as it does large companies.  The move in Scotland is for one NHS, one fire service and even one police force (it is beyond my understanding how policing Glasgow can be anything like that for the Outer Isles). 
    On the down side centralism fosters governing silos and multiple layers of management leading to infighting and staff empire building.  Equally significantly senior management is out of touch with grass roots concerns and problems.  Elected politicians are intended to moderate central government by calling senior politicians in government and senior civil servants to account – a point made by Raine when questioned as his role as councillor. But do they, or are they just lobby fodder?
  2. Distributed government is more in tune with the grass roots and should be able to work closely with the people and direct the available funds to where they are most needed.  What is sure is that people feel involved and there is no doubt that this is in short supply at present – there was only 32% turn out for the recent local council elections.
    In principle more money is spent on providing for government at community level as there are more people involved in the governmental process and there also may be a shortage of good administrators to go round and there is a serious risk of nepotism and low level corruption between officials and business interests. 

A real issue comes as how are the funds raised.  Where government is centralised the obvious choice is through central taxation which is dispersed centrally.  For distributed government there is the opportunity of collecting it at various levels, community, council and centrally; this provides the option for dispersing community level funds to the community itself.  But this leads to the situation where the communities in most need do not benefit from those communities that are better off and could well contribute to the former.

Interestingly the current Scottish Government has full control of the dispersion of the funds at its disposal whether they come from the UK Central Government through Barnett or from the Scottish Councils.  The funds available are unlikely to change with Scottish Independence:  speakers at a recent seminar on Scotland and the UK were agreed that oil revenues are roughly in balance with funds coming though the Barnett formula.  In consequence the only financial difference that Independence would make is by allowing the Scottish Government the ability to decide how funds should be collected, either centrally or on a distributed basis.  So far the Scottish Government has shown no interest in collection other than centrally.

So if we take Maclennan’s point that major assets are best acquired and run centrally what roles are appropriate to be run on a distributed basis.  It would seem to me that these roles are of a social nature where funds go largely in salaries: the social and care services.  In this respect Policing is best considered as a local service meeting the needs of the local community.

Raine’s conclusion includes:  ‘Currently the commitment to localism in England seems ambiguous and contradictory to say the least, and particularly against a financial context of huge reductions in central grant provision, there is precious little scope in reality for councils to exercise the ‘new freedoms’ that they have been awarded.  However, there seems little doubt that localism is coming back into vogue ……

Maclennan’s conclusion includes:  ‘In Scotland, in reshaping service provision and to engage community energies in renewal, we have to have a better defined notion of localism, namely it cannot be either ‘municipalism’ or ‘community’ alone that will be effective.  Perhaps we need better choreography between government levels rather than more change across them …’

I agree with Raine’s point that localism is coming back in vogue if only because people at all levels and particularly at the grass roots can get and are getting their voice heard across the Internet.

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