Local Horizons: challenge and opportunity

Last week the Academy of Government hosted an event with us and representatives from member organisations on the future of Scottish local government. Charlotte Maddix reports back from the event – and sets you a challenge.

LGiU support strong local governance. We help local government and its partners innovate and work together. We believe that some complex problems are best served locally; that for some issues, there’s simply no one-size-fits all solution. In Scotland, local government is at a crossroads. We’ve started a conversation with our member organisations about the way forwards. Following discussion with our members last week, we’re producing a publication in the Autumn exploring questions about what local government in Scotland could look like – and what it needs to do in order to get there.

Challenges

Local government in Scotland has many challenges to face. Since the establishment of Scottish Parliament and Government, has there been a focus on these central institutions at a cost to Scottish local government? Has there been a lack of engagement around meaningful collaboration for the good of citizens? Are we on a path towards ever-greater centralisation?

The next few years will see funding for local government decreasing. 2017/18 will be a particularly challenging year for Scottish councils – see our member-only briefing on the financial outlook for councils to find out why. While the cuts haven’t been as severe as they have been for English local authorities, there’s a definite fear that things will get worse in the near future.

A secondary fear is that the pace and amount of change expected of local government will continue to increase. Scottish Government’s proposals for the next few years contain major challenges for local government. Community planning, for example, is already being reviewed despite the last tranche of changes not even being fully enacted. The education proposals put forward in august also signal more change for local government.

Genuinely invigorated community councils and representative community groups can add a fantastic amount of value. However, many have no real democratic mandate to represent communities. In one council area, only a third of community councillors were elected – the council had to put a cap on the number that could be co-opted. Local authorities have governance, openness, transparency, accountability and that all-important democratic mandate. To bypass local government is to bypass democratic accountability. There is also a lack of clarity in Scotland about the appropriate level to which power should be devolved. We talk about cities, regions and communities but often neglect to consider how these entities connect up. English cities are poised to wield significant powers. Why not Scottish cities? See our recent briefing ‘Standing Out from the Crowd’ for more on the relationship between central and local government in Scotland.

There are of course other challenges that the sector faces. Along with our members, we want to kickstart a conversation about the role local government has to play on Scotland’s future. Many councils and other organisations have been rethinking the relationship between the people that live in an area and the body that governs it – see, for example, Our Islands, Our Future: the Island Councils’ shared vision of a stronger future for the islands. COSLA, Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, is seeking to overhaul participation in decision making across the country and begin a “local revolution”. The Electoral Reform Society have a coalition of like-minded organisations seeking to structurally reform Scotland’s political system. Given all this activity, we believe there is an opportunity for councils and local government as a whole to contribute their ideas to the debate.

The big ideas

At last week’s roundtable, our members had a number of ideas to move the debate on. Parity of esteem has been talked about for a long time – so long as we view power in terms of hierarchies (central government is more important than local government, local government is more important than community councils…) it’s difficult to move forwards. When we have true parity of esteem, we have more power together than we do apart.

During the Scottish referendum campaign, youth engagement was extremely high – why hasn’t this opportunity to really engage young people in politics been seized upon? Wouldn’t our democratic system be all the richer for this?

When it comes to telling a positive story about work that local government does, councils – understandably – concentrate on what they do locally and not forming a national narrative around local governance in Scotland. What the public see is what’s in the papers. We can push messages about inequality, set up fairness commissions, create plans to make our areas better – but what gets media attention nationally is the quality of the provision of services.

Conversations about local governance often become conversations about service provision from the point of view of the service provider. If we look back to the historical preoccupations of local government (sanitary housing, clean water) we see change driven by tremendous civic engagement and pride. What are the wicked issues of the 21st century that we might apply this same method to? If we think in terms of people investing institutions with the power to solve local problems, and not central government handing powers down via devolution and decentralisation, what else might we solve? How should local government behave in the future?

These were just some of the fantastic ideas identified by our members. We also want to hear from you about the other big ideas local government needs to move forwards. We’ll be producing a publication in the Autumn – Local Horizons – which will bring together a coalition of local government practitioners and thinkers to explore ideas such as civic ambition, equity in society and the reform of local democracy. Tweet us @LGiUScotland or join the debate in the comments below.

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Photo Credit: Kit Carruthers via Compfight cc