SURF invites a special guest speaker to its quarterly Board meetings to introduce an open discussion on a regeneration theme of topical interest. In August, we were pleased to have Rory Mair, Chief Executive of CoSLA, present to inform a SURF Board discussion on the final report by the CoSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy.

Given the quality of the discussion on local democracy and community engagement, the SURF Board of Directors and CoSLA subsequently agreed to make a summary extract from the minutes available on the SURF website for wider interest. This extract follows below. Please note that the views expressed during the discussion do not necessarily reflect the positions of SURF or CoSLA.

Meeting of the SURF Board: 21 Aug 2014, Edinburgh

Present: Brian MacDonald (Chair); Peter Allan, David Coulter, Pippa Coutts, Caroline Docherty, Annette Hastings, David Hume, Mike O’Donnell, Jim Rafferty, Richard Rollison, and Ian Wall.

In attendance: Guest speaker Rory Mair, Chief Executive of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA); Andy Milne, SURF Chief Executive; and Emma Scott, SURF Events and Communications Assistant.

Apologies: Robert McDowall, Monica Merson, and Murray Webster.

Introduction and context

logo1_360x171The Open Discussion agenda item featured an input from CoSLA Chief Executive Rory Mair on the well-received final report of the CoSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy – Effective Democracy: Reconnecting with Communities.

SURF Chair Brian MacDonald noted SURF’s enhanced level of productive engagement with CoSLA in recent years based on substantial shared interests in supporting cross sector collaboration towards more effective and sustainable community regeneration. He then warmly welcomed Rory Mair to the meeting and, after brief introductions, invited him to instigate the open discussion session with a brief presentation on the work and aspirations of the CoSLA Strengthening Local Democracy Commission.

Presentation: Rory Mair

Rory welcomed this opportunity to build on what he described as a helpfully accelerated relationship with SURF over the last year. He went on to describe the context and process of the Commission’s work and recently published report. In the course of that description, he noted the following points:

  • Half of the Commissioners are not from local authorities;
  • All shared a concern about the health of democracy at all levels of society;
  • How most local authorities approach their responsibilities has been culturally ingrained over the last 50 years and conditioned by way we have organised local government;
  • Since 1974, the number of councils has been reduced from 232 to 32, so inevitably they have become less democratically representative;
  • Recent research confirms a link between the degree of local democracy and level of inequality;
  • Greater investment in local democracy is a way of unlocking a route to addressing inequality;
  • Countries with high turnout in elections have invested more in participation;
  • There is also a link between the quality of participation engendered and the quality of representation that results;
  • We have largely invested in representation rather than participation – a better balance is needed;
  • There is a recognised irony in a national government sponsoring a Community Empowerment Bill, since communities empower governments not vice a versa.

The seven key principles of the Commission’s final report are:

  • Sovereignty – democratic power lies with communities who give some of that power to governments and local government; not the other way around;
  • Subsidiarity – decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible;
  • Transparency – democratic governance should be clear and understandable to communities;
  • Participation – all communities must be able to participate in decision making affecting their lives and communities;
  • ‘Spheres not Tiers’ of governance – different spheres of governance have distinct jobs and competencies and should not be dependent on powers handed down from higher levels of governance;
  • Interdependency – no sphere of governance should seek to be self-contained and self- sufficient;
  • Wellbeing – the purpose of all democratic governance is to improve opportunities and outcomes for individuals and communities that empower it.

Rory concluded his initial remarks by noting that:

  • At this stage, the report represents the view of the Commission. CoSLA has yet to consider and react to it;
  • Meantime, each of the Commission members will promote the report via their own networks;
  • In the post-referendum context, a high level of engagement with the issues it raises is hoped for;
  • There will inevitably be differing perspectives and some disagreements on particular recommendations but the Commission is looking forward to a real and robust discussion.

Open Discussion

Brian thanked Rory for his thought-provoking and frank presentation. He then invited questions and comments from fellow directors. In the course of the open discussion, the following points were covered:

What is the next step?

  • Getting the report widely circulated. At this stage there have been 60,000 downloads so far.
  • Hoping to make the most of what will be raised post referendum levels of civic/public interest in these issues.

How will we get this rolled out to communities? Whose job is that?

  • Sadly there has been a level of disinvestment in community engagement structures over the last 20 years, with some valuable networks lost.
  • The varied networks of the commissioners themselves should be helpful in this regard as will those of local councils. They have a key role in promoting the debate.
  • A lot of evidence was gathered from communities. It will be important to go back to those who contributed evidence.

As noted, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of local authorities and significant shifts/limits in the demarcation of powers. How can we rebalance appropriate roles and responsibilities?

  • Some things do need to be decided at a strategic level decisions but that doesn’t mean local democracy has to suffer.
  • We need to clearly justify why a decision is being made further away from the local level.
  • There are many examples of a centralising tendency at national and local government levels. The principle of subsidiary should be applied in all cases.
  • But we need a balance of strategic, regional, local and community processes. There are competing interests for access to resources and decision making powers; that is where the difficulty lies in adequately and pragmatically addressing conflicting interests.
  • We don’t have to keep doing things the way they are being done now. It is vital to always tie decisions back into community wellbeing.
  • ‘Postcode Lotteries’ are not necessarily bad if they better reflect local needs through an adequate process of local decision making in differentiated communities.
  • Presently communities don’t see how decisions are arrived at. Debates on policy and resources and services need to be more transparent.
  • We will need different styles of engagement and more creative, intergenerational participation. Directly involving creative people in that process can bring people together to help unlock different experiences/ideas/conversations.
  • Yes, the prevailing culture of decision making tends not to be creative
  • We have not got enough recent experience in this country of broad based participation
  • We need to promote a discussion about how this could work better?

How is the report linking the challenge of greater participation to increased social inequalities?

  • An important point. We can’t have an effective local democracy system that doesn’t address inequality.
  • Universal services need to furnish communities with the skills and support to build greater capacity for involvement.

Can we assume that strategic issues should left to the Scottish Government so that local government can focus on greater participation?

  • We should not always assume that strategic decisions are the responsibility of the Scottish Government alone.
  • Equally we need to be thoughtful about the sensible devolution of strategic considerations.
  • Important evidence and knowledge often exists at the community level.
  • There is some scepticism about the concept of more participative democracy in local government. It is argued that most people don’t want to be consulted. They just want their services to be done well by professionals e.g. schools, health etc. Perhaps we are becoming too concerned with process, rather than what we are getting. The key issue is who controls the flow of money.
  • In their considerations, the Commission didn’t buy the ‘I don’t care who does it’ position. That is fine as long as inequalities don’t affect you negatively. Where does such an approach stop? At a deeper level, people do care.
  • There is an important issue about finance – local government currently raises only 16% of its budget locally, 84% is from central government grants.
  • A process of some equalization is necessary. At present the ability to raise additional resources depends largely on the size of the council.

Some would argue that the greatest force for equality was Strathclyde Regional Council, which took a leading role in the development and delivery of quality services across half of Scotland with shared services across many communities. Is this accurate?

  • Competence should be allocated to those who can do it effectively and who can be effectively held to account.
  • In the days of Strathclyde, services were provided but inequality wasn’t better managed.
  • Is there another choice in which you can have the quality of local decision making but with the support of bigger providers?
  • We need to think of a way around these challenges, including the economies of scale/local benefits balance.

In terms of considering how to best address inequalities and the impacts of long standing macro-economic policies, a lot of important work is going on in Scotland at the moment. How will this work fit in with that debate? Where do you think the levers of change are for implementation?

  • The link between a different way of doing local democracy and addressing inequality is not straight forward. There are key influences beyond that.
  • Other countries do handle inequality better, so doing better is possible.
  • Presently in general terms, we don’t work on a basis of competencies, we work on a basis of power.
  • Each sector alone won’t crack it but coming together post referendum for a real and robust discussion may offer a chance of significant progress.

Where is the role for Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs)?

  • CPPs are a solution to a problem we made ourselves.
  • CPPs work best on coordination of services, not local democracy.
  • We need to go to the source of the problem, which is the erosion of participative democracy.

[End of summary]