First published on ‘Labour Hame’ July 2015

Like most of us I’m still trying to think through the reasons for the political cataclysm that engulfed Labour in May – in Scotland and to a lesser extent in the rest of the UK.  And one conclusion strikes me – the others, SNP, Tories, Greens, were simply better than us.  They were, and are, better politicians, better at doing the business of politics.  We were and are lousy at it.

George Osborne, averagely smart as he is, is a terrible Chancellor.  He has floored the growing economy he inherited, failed to put the public finances back in shape and fixed into place shocking inequality.  Yet all he had to do was set a simple trap in Parliament over part of the social security system and we march straight into it, arms flailing.  He has no plan for the economy only the laughable rhetoric of ‘long-term economic plan’ (rhetoric of which I suspect we will now hear nothing more).  The goal was and still is wide open for us, the public crying out for a feasible alternative to austerity, economists around the world offering that alternative, but we stand effectively silent.  Of course, in Osborne, we are confronted by a good politician who, though his actions were inconsistent and ineffective, presented the same consistent, effective message over the years – “Labour are to blame, we’re putting it right”.  And that simple act of politics left us speechless.

Same with the SNP, though they’ve done it differently. They’ve done very little over their nine years in government; by doing little they’ve not upset anyone, exuded competence and used that inaction to take underpin the claim that ‘London’ was holding Scotland back. They’ve been consistently ineffective and yet have presented the same consistent message over even more years – “Labour let Scotland down, we’re going to break free”.  And again we were speechless, except to say well, actually, we’re in favour of Scotland too, in fact, even ‘patriotic’.

Of course we’ve had times in our history when we have been rather good at politics, professionally excellent.  We knew how to speak to the electorate with words they could understand and which spoke to their hopes and fears.  We straddled the needs of working class and middle class voters, as Labour has done from its foundation, building bridges between their values.  We were better than our opponents, we found the words to shape the hope people wanted and we won elections.  Attlee won two and was in power for six years. Wilson and Blair each won three, Wilson governing for eight years in total and Blair for ten years.

Unfortunately, in Labour we are often uncomfortable with political success, especially the more recent examples of it.  There’s a strand in our thinking and culture which equates being good at the practice of politics with unwarranted slickness and unprincipled cleverness. It’s as if simply being ‘right’ should be enough to bring success, as if our ‘values’ by themselves were sufficient to gather support and as if by simply standing for office ‘our voters’ would turn out and do their duty by us.

And in our politicians there have been times when even the less perspicacious might discern a resistance to thinking and acting as though they intend to win and to learning and re-learning the necessary skills in the practice of politics that might just enable them to win.

Time for Labour to learn to be better at politics.  It’s about learning and using the skills of framing and re-framing so that we are not caught out by “Labour maxed out the credit card” and “Labour’s talking Scotland down”. It’s about learning how to make strategy for the next five and ten years out of acute understandings about our identity, our positioning and our objectives and creating the party culture and governance to stick with it. It’s about learning that shopping lists of policies for every problem under the sun don’t win elections but paying proper attention to the few big questions in voters minds do. And it’s about learning and practising the art of public narrative, finding, telling and re-telling those emotionally compelling stories of journeys made and journeys still to come which engage people with who we are and invite them to join us in what we want to do.

That learning and those skills are for our leaders, yes.  But they are also of all of us too.  What a long way there is to go – back to the place where winning is what we do.

Up Close and Personal

Published in “Towards the Local”  Scottish Fabians  March 2014

Britain sometimes feels like a failed state.  It’s a feeling which, for many, gives impetus and credence to SNP demands to separate Scotland from it all. Just as it does to UKIP’s ‘back to basics’ call to walk away from Europe.

Look at the scandals that have rocked our institutions. “The banks have forfeited public trust as a result of corruption and incompetence…… The reputation of Parliament was gravely damaged by the expenses scandal that came to light in 2009 and has been rumbling on through the courts and the media ever since. The press saw what remained of its reputation for probity shredded by the phone-hacking scandal.” We’ve had revelations about the police over cover-ups of the Hillsborough disaster and now allegations about the Met, the Police Federation and ‘plebgate’.  “The BBC is still reeling from the scandal …. of Jimmy Savile and the exposure of ludicrously generous payoffs to executives caught up in it. This summer we discovered that the British secret services have been routinely eavesdropping on the everyday activities of ordinary British citizens” and even the armed forces “have been tarnished by revelations about past brutalities in Northern Ireland and Iraq.” (1) The whole edifice of public life appears to be crumbling.

What these shocks have in common is the now-exposed culture of entitlement, backscratching and “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites. As British society has become more unequal it has created pockets of privilege whose inhabitants are tempted to think that the normal rules don’t apply to them.” (2) The public’s tolerance for those elites, and the managerial politics that go with it, depends on the ability of the managers to keep delivering. Once that stops, they are exposed.

And it has stopped. Right up against the wall of management failure built from targets, incentives and payment by results. A study of three NHS hospitals in England discovered that the nearer people got to the four-hour wait limit in A&E, the more likely they were to be admitted to hospital until at 3 hours 59 minutes everyone was admitted, irrespective of clinical need. Beyond 4 hours and people were left to wait much longer still as those within target range got priority. (3)  That’s the system – not ‘bad apples’; the system of central government trying to control and improve in detail what happens on the ‘front-line’. Unfortunately, if targets, or their Scottish variant ‘outcomes’, are the measures of success and the parameters for accountability, then managers organise services to meet targets not the needs of their clients. They create “poorer services for those most in need. It is the vulnerable, the marginalised, the disadvantaged who suffer most from payment by results.” (4)  We get Mid-Staffs hospital and the three-star Haringey Council which met its targets and failed Baby P.

So ministers push for better.  Michael Russell puts heavy pressure on Scottish Colleges as only he knows how and Jeremy Hunt regularly phones up English hospital bosses. MSPs and MPs put pressure on Michael Russell and Jeremy Hunt. The word goes out – central government has these requirements of you, so shape up: these are the necessary “outcomes” for “success”- deliver them. Unfortunately if you are doing the wrong thing, then doing it better makes you wronger, not righter. And it seems we are getting ‘wronger‘ in many areas of life.

Like the UK as a whole, Scotland is sharply divided by inequality and this division has increased over three decades. Our economy today fails to provide adequate work or income to a large minority – 20% of workers are paid less than that it’s possible to live on (up from 18% in 2012) (5).  Considerable spending on Scottish public services over the years has failed to correct the impact of that inequality. The negative outcomes of failure drive current public spending. Local housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health policy struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty – obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, disability;  schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family “failures” again associated with poverty, fail to keep up with standards in the rest of the world. John Seddon reckons up to 80% of what is done in local authorities today is driven by what he calls ‘failure demand’ (6).

Money is poured in. Scottish public spending rose from about £8200 per head in 1997/8 to over £12,000 per head in 2011/12 (7). Benefit from that spending has not increased in the same way.  We still have some of the worst health in Europe and our education results do little to impress. Even the places we build are rarely better than mediocre says the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers. Increased public spending accompanied by lower levels of ‘output’ suggests that the ‘productivity’ of UK public services has declined significantly: the average “bang for each buck”  is estimated to have fallen by 13.4% between 1997 and 2007 (8).

Then, when public services no longer operate as they should, the elite networks allow markets in where they shouldn’t, despite having just experienced the worst market failure in a century. We place public security and safety in the hands of private firms, disastrously as we saw with G4S and the Olympics. We pay people to look after their health and shed weight. We even pay school children to read books. Much of the essential state role of protecting its citizens is transferred into corporate hands – prisons, hospitals, intelligence.  The marketisation of what were previously public services (what George Lakoff (9) calls ‘privateering’) removes democratic accountability under the guise of ‘commercial confidentiality’ and converts the public’s money into private profit. That all changes our social morality (10).

Does it therefore surprise us – under the weight of institutional scandal and the failure with impunity of the managerial elites –  that trust in British institutions, British politicians and the democratic process itself is all but destroyed?  Does it surprise us that when the British state, much of it now in private hands, seems to act largely in its own interests not in those of the public, that the public walk away in disgust or boredom?

Democratic renewal is now urgent – changing how things are done, changing the relationships of power that now characterise who we have become.

Many on the left cite income inequality as the cause of the disconnected society we now inhabit. Professor Danielle Allen says (11) the reverse is true: social disconnection is the cause of inequality. “To achieve connectedness you have to have an egalitarian ethos, but if you don’t start to build institutional channels for connection, it doesn’t matter what type of egalitarian ethos you have, you won’t be able to make use of it…..Building a connected society is about empowering the disempowered”.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson similarly contends (12) that equality does not consist in an equal distribution of a particular good, whether income, capabilities or welfare, but in egalitarian social relations: relationships of equal power, esteem and standing between citizens in a society where there is a wide dispersion of social and economic power and a vibrant, alert and widely-engaged democracy.

Roberto Unger talks (13) of the goal of the left being ‘deep freedom’ – a devotion to the empowerment of the ordinary person, a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability. He says it can only be grasped and realised through change of our institutions and practices – not just through a one-time change either, but through a democratic practice that can generate ongoing renewal of the institutional order of society.

For these thinkers the pursuit of personal freedom and equality of voice go hand in hand; democratic and institutional reform are the partners of social and economic equality.  As Unger also says “Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics, the facility for structural change, as well as raising its temperature, the level of popular engagement in public life.”

This reform is not simply a plaything of political ‘techies’.  It is democratic renewal from the ground up, constitutional and institutional reform as if people mattered.  It is participative and deliberative. It cannot be other than founded in subsidiarity.  It is necessary to any attempt to organise and manage governmental services based on productive, co-operative, learning relationships between receiver and provider (14).

Of course, there’s no one magic bullet. We need economic reform to found the ‘new economy’ of which Labour now speaks.  We probably need a new Act of Union to re-balance and make transparent the connections between all parts of the United Kingdom.  But I cannot see any realistic place to start the process of institutional, democratic and service reform of the kind we want to see other than where people are, at the level of place and community. In the local. Up close and personal.

Even so – it’s a big task. Everything pushes the other way – towards the centre, towards the big, towards the private, towards the elite.  To succeed, and to continue to succeed with renewal on the scale we need will require action that is both fast and slow, big and small. One big step and many small ones.

The big step is this: by act of the Scottish Parliament to devolve all public service provision to the local, except those which by their nature should be specifically reserved to Scottish government.   It’s familiar territory. The same ‘reserved powers’ principle is embedded in the Act which set up our Scottish Parliament and itself reflects the principle of subsidiarity upon which governance in most of the rest of Europe is based.

Steady change will follow thereafter only if local democracies are free to develop as suits their local circumstance.  Free to merge or divide as works best, to adopt different voting systems, free to delegate budgets to lower levels, to manage services as works best locally. It means an almighty democratic reform of the way in which we do local politics and local government: making it participative, pluralist and deliberative.  With Unger’s increased pace and increased temperature in local institutions our larger democracies will change in consequence;  local democracy, close to home, is after all where people learn first how to walk. And with public services placed at local levels, where the paths of information and control are shorter and where productive alliances between users and suppliers can govern their provision,  purpose will replace targets as the management principle (15), making money better spent. Intimate local connections, not top-down targets, will manage complexity and variance.

There are many tools then that local democracies can use – the skills of designers in re-shaping service provision, new institutions like municipal banks, new service co-operatives, local audit systems, community enterprise and new instruments by which land values from development can accrue to communities.  Of course, the Council Tax will be an early casualty to be replaced by taxation that is more local, flexible and fair.

If the Scottish Parliament is to grasp this next stage of devolution its role will change. It will leave behind the detailed management of public services and reach up to grasp fully its ambition as a legislature: setting standards, enhancing our rights and freedoms, taking on vested interests. It might, for instance, extend the Freedom of Information Act to companies delivering public services, create basic guarantees in health, stop the exploitation of charities law by private schools, outlaw secret societies in the police and justiciary, pass development land through public ownership, establish gender balance wherever public money is spent, and so much more. The Scottish government will run those services and institutions which are necessarily national and otherwise concentrate activities which provoke change: on learning, on sharing, on guidance, on improvement – government as a university of democracy and public well-being. And crucially it will ensure, through re-allocation of resources under its control, that justice and equality between poor communities and richer communities, is sustained and strengthened.

Done for the right reasons, and given time, by using roughly the powers the Scottish Parliament already has, we may well be able in this way to re-formulate the boundaries between private and public, re-balance that divide in favour of the common good and the public realm, control the excesses of elites and question the morality of markets.  Untidy, diverse and uncontrolled it will certainly be, and to accept that is hard for those currently in power, but I believe it to be the right and adventurous path.


(1) David Runciman  “The Crisis of British Democracy” Juncture IPPR December 2013

(2) ibid

(3) Simon Caulkin  “Kittens are evil: heresies in public policy” 2013

(4) Toby Lowe   “Payment by results – a ‘dangerous idiocy’ that makes staff tell lies” Guardian Professional  February 2013

(5) KPMG News/living-wage-research-october-2013-1.pdf

(6) Ibid  Simon Caulkin

(7) using figures from GERS.  Figures are total managed expenditure in 2011/12 prices

(8) Institute of Fiscal Studies

(9) George Lakoff  “The Political Mind”  Viking Penguin 2008

(10) See Michael Sandel “What Money Can’t Buy” 2012

(11)’s-new-heavyweight  December 2012

(12) quoted in Nick Pearce “The Future of Equality: What should social democrats believe?”  IPPR  September 2013

(13) Roberto Unger “Why the left should abandon equality” Juncture IPPR October 2013.  This essay represents an excerpt from Roberto Unger’s forthcoming book, “The Religion of the Future,” to be published by Harvard University Press in the spring of 2014

(14) see Graeme Cook and Rick Muir “The Relational State” IPPR  November 2012  and Rick Muir and Imogen Parker “Many to Many”  IPPR  February 2014


Evidence to CoSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy

December 2013


1. Why Local Democracy is important and what it can achieve

Scotland has no real local democracy

Compared with the rest of Europe Scotland doesn’t really have local democracy at all. We have fewer local authorities, fewer councillors, fewer candidates standing for election. Councils have limited discretion over a tiny proportion of their revenues and their area can be close to that of smaller European nations. Eberhart Bort, with others, provides these figures (1)

It should be noted that the communities in other countries with what seem to us tiny local authorities suffer no diminution in wellbeing compared with Scotland; indeed the opposite is more often the case.

The figures that follow about participation in elections signal the malaise in Scotland’s local democracies. Why is it like that? The many reasons will include the lack of independent powers, the lack of taxation powers, the size of local authorities, the electoral system, the culture of customer rather than citizen.

Our larger democracy is founded in the local -­‐ and it’s failing too.

Most people’s experience of our democracy is at the local level around issues that affect the place where they live -­ from measures to make a dangerous road safer to whether or not a school should close.

For most people, though, even local democracy doesn’t work well -­ decisions are taken somewhere else rather than where they live. The geographical size of many Scttish local authorities makes that inevitable: Highland Region is bigger than Belgium. Major towns like Kirkcaldy or East Kilbride or Cumbernauld lack any statutory self-­governance. Even in cities people are distanced from decisions through centralised and remote management and decision-­making as well as simply their population size.

Local democracy ought to be the ‘entry level’ for citizens to experience a wider democracy. It is in a sense a school for citizenship. If that ‘entry level’ doesn’t work well enough then our larger democracy will not work well enough either. The failure to allow our democracy to work at a local level is one of the reasons why our national democracy at a Scottish and UK level is characterised by disillusion, distance and distrust.

The failure of our democratic institutions perhaps ought not to surprise us. There are large and powerful anti‐democracy forces at work.

The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. A significant growth in income inequality happened through the eighties and early nineties, slowed but did not decline from the late nineties through to the late noughties and has increased again during the current financial crisis. The Gini coefficient measures inequality and it rose from 26 in 1979 to 41 in 2009 (2). Inequality causes many social ills, including the destruction of social trust and a consequent decline in social capital (3). Without social trust and strong social capital democratic participation flounders.

The same effect can be seen with the growth of large and global corpora;ons and the impact on local communities when they move into them. American studies show, when a Wal-­mart store moves into a small rural town, it retains fewer non-­profit groups and social capital-­generating associations (such as churches, political organisations, and business groups) per head than towns without the store. Wal-­Mart’s presence also depresses civic participation and is associated with lower voter turnout in the 2000 presidential election in communities where it is present (4). The pattern of our economy now hinders our democracy.

Large and powerful vested interests prefer a world without strong democracy: regulation is lighter and tax-­evasion easier. The world‐view that promotes their interests as being in everyone’s interest is widely held and strongly advocated, embedded in everyday frames of thought for forty years. Professor George Lakoff asserts that “the anti­‐democratic mode of thought -­ better funded, better organised and more thoroughly worked out -­ has been winning and fundamentally changing how our lives are governed.” (5)

If local democracy is the ‘entry level’ of democracy for most people, then to strengthen and re-­ invigorate local democracy is the first step in pressing back against anti‐democratic forces.

But there are, of course, ‘anti‐local’ vested interests as well, the prime one being central government itself. Central government -­ politicians, civil servants and now all the many creature agencies of central government -­ instinctively distrust and dislike the diversity that greater local democracy will inevitably promote. The shift of power away from the centre that stronger local democracy implies is therefore invariably resisted. Indeed for many years power has travelled in the other direction -­ towards an agglomeration in the centre.

Centralised institutions and control are sources of failure.

Local democracy now finds itself squeezed between large and powerful central government and large and powerful corporate interests. This reduces communal wellbeing and imposes costs of failure.

Large corporations prefer uniformity of product or service throughout the globe, if they are global companies, or throughout a country if they work within national markets. Apple or Microsoft are the same throughout the world; Deloittes or Price Waterhouse offer financial and economic advice rooted in the prevailing global economic philosophy regardless of the needs of local economies; British national house-­builders largely build the same ‘pattern‐book’ housing whether it be Dunstable or Dunfermline, regardless of the traditions and conditions of each place.

Over the years government has become more centralised and centralised government, itself a large organisation, also prefers uniformity of provision. It closely regulates, without overwhelmingly evident success, the now-­privatised former functions of government such as railways or energy. In that reduced number of public services which remain with local government uniformity is enforced through targets and regulations of various kinds, regardless of local circumstance. And where it detects ‘failure’ in either, central government imposes direct control through ‘special measures’ or rapidly responds to calls to ‘tighten regulation’.

There is a connection, however, between the centralisation of government and the ‘failure’ of public services and of our democracy.

That ‘failure’ is significant. Scotland has only slightly less inequality than the UK as a whole. Like the UK as a whole, its popula;on is sharply divided and this division has increased over three decades. Our economy today fails to provide adequate work or income to a large minority -­ 20% of workers are paid less than a living wage (up from 18% in 2012) (6) . Considerable spending on Scttish public services over the years has failed to correct the impact of that inequity. In fact, the negative outcomes of that failure drive current public spending. Local housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health policy struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty -­ obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, disability; schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family “failures” again associated with poverty, fail to keep up with standards in the rest of the world.

To counteract these failings, Scottish public spending rose from about £8200 per head in 1997/8 to over £12,000 per head in 2011/12 (7). Benefit from that spending has not increased in the same way. We still have some of the worst health in Europe and our education results do little to impress. Even the places we build are rarely better than mediocre says the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers. Increased public spending accompanied by lower levels of ‘output’ suggests that the ‘productivity’ of public services has declined significantly (8).

It seems the direction and management of public services have become distanced from real knowledge of what’s needed and what actually works to fulfil their purpose.

The prevailing (though not exclusive) organisational and management stance in both private and public sectors is that bigness is beneficial and that uniformity of product or provision is desirable. In government this desire to improve manifests through the imposition of required measures – ­regulation, targets and occasionally direct intervention (or at least the threat of it). Uniform regula;ons govern the practice of social workers and of road repair workers. The same traffic regulations apply from Deal to Dalwhinnie. Targets govern practice in hospitals, schools and police. Ministers are able to intervene over every planning application in the land, even a shop advertisement.

A growing number of thinkers, a leader among whom is John Seddon (9), say that this reliance on management through required ac;ons or measures is the cause of much of the malaise, especially when imposed from ‘outside’. Centralisation, targets and regulation, even the reliance on measuring ‘output’, simply don’t work in providing what people need. They just create or confirm ‘failure’ which then creates a social demand to which public services, especially local public services, must in turn respond. In the private sector W Edwards Deming famously described this pattern as “Let’s make toast (your) way. You burn and I’ll scrape”. In local authorities John Seddon reckons up to 80% of what is done today can be driven by what he calls ‘failure demand’ (10) -­ or burnt toast.

The argument is that arbitrary measures such as targets and service levels quickly become the de-­facto purpose of an organisation, a purpose so strong it is even sometimes met through cheating and manipulation. Such measures certainly constrain the methods and practices of organisations, with work focussed on complying with the de-­facto ‘purpose’ of targets and regulation. The argument then says that if, instead, purpose is allowed to be defined in ‘customer’ terms -­ for government that is broadly the well-­being of communities and individuals -­ then that liberates the methods that can be used and so encourages innovation and reduces failure. This is especially so if the power to decide is placed in the hands of front-­line staff.

We know in local government that what makes up the ‘purpose’ of community and individual well-­being is best determined as close as possible to those communities and individuals. That means that we should no longer talk about service ‘delivery’ at a local level -­ delivery assumes an active ‘deliverer’ and a passive receiver. Rather we should talk about how we best determine, with local communi;es and individuals, what the local public purpose is -­ and how best to meet it with public services that are not driven by failure but by genuine public value and the active participation of citizens in shaping them.

In other words, if we want to overcome failures in our economy and public services, large scale failures -­ we need to talk about local democracy and how local government can best serve it.

Place and relationships at the centre of well-­being

Wal-­mart diminishes democracy in places where it has established itself because it undermines relationships -­ shopping becomes purely transactional and loses elements of personal and communal interaction that local shops support. In the same way, targets and regulations diminish democracy because they treat citizens as customers -­ as passive ‘receivers’ of the transaction of targeted services -­ and not as participants with whom to interact.

Conversely, well-­being improves if relationships improve and part of the task of government is therefore to sustain relationships between citizens and, in some cases, to nurture those relationships as a means of governing and providing public services to improve the well-­being of communities and individuals (11).

Relationships are largely contained within the places in which people live, even in the jet and internet age. Places which sustain relatoonships are better for it and so are the communities which those places contain (12). Well-­being of place, well-­being of community and the well-­being of democracy go together.

The Christie Commission was established to map out the future of public services. It set out guiding principles: a concentration on prevention and outcomes, a focus on place, and the integration of services -­ all imbued with the idea of ‘co-­production’ between service provider and service user. In other words, public purpose determined through democracy and government at the level of place.

A focus on place and its well-­being enables necessary attention to outcomes that really matter. It guides investment towards building healthy and supportive communities. It is the key to open the door to thinking collaboratively about prevention and prosperity. It is the lynchpin of local leadership in the years ahead. The journey towards that ideal requires mobilising civic assets, in the widest sense, and working across the divides of institutions and services, markets and communities. Building that new ‘relationship ecology’ can happen only at the scale and within the governance of the places people inhabit. In other words -­ it can only happen through local democracy.

Making it happen means thinking differently about the conversations we have with citizens about public services. It means thinking differently about our resources -­ about how we create local assets, how we manage those assets and and cultivate social capital. It means aligning those resources for a common purpose. It means thinking differently about governance, building it on relationships and collaboration, building democracy.

So places -­ and the relationships within places -­ stand at the centre. Past failure in concisely creating successful and resilient places helped produce the negative outcomes now driving public spending. If we invest in and strengthen place -­ and all the human connections, attachments and assets that make it work -­ then we provide the basis for public collaboration and strengthened democracy. In turn they are the means to provide the improved outcomes on which our common future depends. Strong, resilient, connected places promote local prosperity and that prosperity itself provides the foundation for social improvement and reduces pressure on public services.

This all puts larger and different burdens on local democracy, governance and leadership. All need to know that places, successful or unsuccessful, don’t just drop from the sky. They are made by our human action, either through thought and purposeful deeds -­ or through accident. Those that are thoughtfully and deliberately made are likely to carry and embody the values and aspirations of the local democracies which enable them.


2. A route map to delivering stronger local democracy in Scotland

Places Need Leaders

Local democracies will remain as enfeebled as they currently are if they do not have necessary powers to shape the places which embody them.

Where we live affects how we live and how well we live; the quality of our place shapes the well-­being of each one of us. Some places are successful in improving our well-­being. Others are not; and, if they are really bad, they may lessen our well-­being – harming our economy, society and environment.

For all those concerned with democracy, the quality of place matters. It helps, or hinders, efforts to achieve economic, social or environmental goals. For politicians in particular, looking to the success of their place helps them do what they were elected to do.

But our places, especially new ones, are not as good as they ought to be. Almost all the professionals involved in making or re-­making the built environment in Scotland say that, by and large, the best and the average places in Europe are a very long way ahead of the best and the average places in Scotland (13). They work better for the people who live and work in them.

Scotland needs better places. So how do we get there?

Leadership within the local democracy is of first importance. It comes in two parts: ‘leadership ability’ -­ the skills, knowledge and competence of individuals to lead -­ and ‘leadership capacity’ -­ the resources, processes and legal powers through which the leadership ability of individuals within an organisation is either facilitated or hindered. If Scottish places -­ and by consequence, Scottish local democracy -­ are to be improved then ability and capacity must be developed together; they are two sides of the same coin. It is in improving the capacity for leadership that significant challenges present themselves.

Places are made through the interaction of public and private institutions and interests, through the state on one hand and the market on the other. Today, in Scotland, the private sector, the ‘market’, dominates the making of the places in which we live, often through large national, even global, companies. Local purpose for the place, as expressed through local democracy, is effectively absent because the local state is hollowed out, lacking the necessary powers, and is congested with many agencies, all with their own priorities and ‘measures’ -­ targets and regulations.

If local democracies are to shape their own places then they must at least have and own the powers they need to shape the real estate market in their locality rather than have their place shaped by it. That will require legislation in Parliament.

New local powers should be provided to allow the provision of collective goods -­ the infrastructure of utilities, public transport, public realm and open space -­ in advance of development. Powers should also be created to enable the local state to acquire at least temporary ownership of significant development sites in advance of development. And greater upstream resources, perhaps derived from the power to participate in the increased value land assumes from planning permission and then development, should be provided and devoted to creating effective plans and development frameworks by local democracies. Lastly, new democratic local public institutions should be allowed and devised to spread risk and enhance, even realise for the public good, the increased long-­‐term value from creating successful places.

Detailed proposals to increase local democratic leadership capacity can be found in “Places Need Leaders” by David Adams and Trevor Davies (14).


(1 ) Eberhard Bort, Robin McAlpine and Gordon Morgan, The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland, The Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2012

(2) Households Below Average Income, DWP (1994/95 onwards) and the Family Expenditure Survey (earlier years) obtained via data published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies

(3) The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate PickeL Allen Lane 2009
(4) Wal-­Mart and Social Capital, Stephan J. Goetz and Anil Rupasingha, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Dec. 2006.

(5) The Political Mind. George Lakoff Viking Penguin 2008
(6) KPMG News/living-­wage‐research-­october-­2013-­1.pdf
(7)­ashcroas-­scottish/public-­spending/ using figures from GERS. Figures are total managed expenditure in 2011/12 prices

(8) Institute of Fiscal Studies


(10) quoted by David Boyle “The Struggle for the Soul of Public Services” in Town and Country Planning November 2013

(11) see IPPR ‘The Relational State” November 2012
(12) Jane Jacobs “The Death and Life of Great America Cities” -­‐ and many other authors since

(13) “Delivering Better Places in Scotland” David Adams, Steve Tiesdell and George Weeks




First published in ‘the Scotsman’  6 July 2012


Linus van Pelt needs his blue security blanket. Desperately.  It makes him feel better.  No matter how much Snoopy tries to steal it or Lucy pleads with him to abandon it and grow up, he hangs on tight.  As Linus explains (in ‘A Boy named Charlie Brown’) “This blanket is a necessity – it keeps me from cracking up. It may be regarded as a spiritual tourniquet. Without it, I’d be nothing, a ship without a rudder.”

Which is how we feel about our ‘green belt’. We hang on to it. Like a blue blanket it helps us not to grow up.

With the new Strategic Development Plan for Edinburgh and South East Scotland (SESPlan) soon to hit the streets, it’s time to take a sceptical look at our continuous green belt. I think it’s even time to throw that security blanket away.

Before the uproar begins let me be plain.  I’m in favour of green.  I want to protect our public green spaces and improve our access to them. I abhor the carpet-bombing of the countryside with pattern-book housing estates that look as though they come from somewhere that isn’t here. I just don’t think a continuously encircling green belt around our cities and towns helps us with all that.

Though we may choose to ignore the fact, most of us now live in what was once a green belt of sorts around an older part of our town or city.  Probably it wasn’t the strictly designated ‘green belt’ we have today, just neighbouring fields, but mouthful by mouthful over the years those fields have been eaten up by the city.  We still do it, even out of the statutory ‘green belt’, nibbling a bite here or a morsel there, providing homes for people to live and places for people to work.  But that’s not the whole story.  Those land nibbles don’t provide for everyone.  As SESPlan will say, ‘Greater Edinburgh’ now stretches from Leven, past Bathgate, beyond Galashiels to Eyemouth – we’ve played leapfrog over the green belt, spread our homes over green farm land miles away and, as part of getting back into the city, constructed huge dual carriageway roads and soon-to-be-two road bridges.

Now this isn’t a simple problem.

Difficult and complex issues face those who plan our future. First, as we all know, there are simply not enough homes of the right kind at an affordable price for all of us – especially those with growing lives and young families.  The average age for first time buyers is creeping up to the late thirties and even then many rely on the ‘bank of mum and dad’. We need to build homes. Second, we spend too much of our time and money just commuting to work or going to school or getting what we need. The trains are hardly taking the strain, roads always fill up, cancer-causing diesel lorries cover more miles than ever, delivering and picking up.  We need to travel less. Third, with all that moving about the fumes create air pollution, water pollution, climate change.  We need to pollute less.  Fourth, our population hasn’t increased much, but the space we all take up has, we’ve spread not grown. Serving and connecting all those new settlements over such a large area needs big public spending on new infrastructure – new bridges, new roads, new trams, new railways, new sewers, new water supplies, and more.  We find it hard to afford all that public investment.

These problems have taken a logarithmic leap since the time the green belt was invented.  It’s a different world. But, as Linus asks, “How can you solve ‘new math’ problems with an ‘old math’ mind?” We hang on to the old mindset of continuous green belt like a security blanket, hoping its going to do some good. Then, by nibbling at it and leapfrogging it, we’ve actually made it part of the problem.  We need a change of mind. Some ‘new math’.

Have you been to the green belt lately?  I have.  Plenty of fine open green fields fenced in with no public access and almost all optioned by developers hoping for the next ‘nibble’.  And chunks of waste ground with nettles and rusting sheds, again optioned, where the developer argument is that it’s hardly worth keeping anyway.  It’s not the ‘public green space’ nirvana of the blue blanket brigade.

So – what to do.  What is a ‘new math’ mind?  How do we build more homes, travel less, especially by car, pollute less and find the public money for infrastructure?  And at the same time give more people more access to protected green space?

Try this simple experiment.  Lay your palm flat on the table with fingers closed.  That’s roughly how we grow our urban areas now – solidly continuous with only the people at the edge enjoying the green.  Then open your fingers.  Access to the green wedges between your fingers is so much longer.

That ‘finger plan’ describes Copenhagen, a city that in 60 years of operating its plan has moved from one of Europe’s poorest to one of its most prosperous. Protected green wedges add huge amenity to densely-built communities along finger bones of mass public transport.  No continuous green belt here, but more access to green space than we enjoy.  Sufficient housing, but, as more people live near public transport ‘bones’, fewer people drive to work, and cause less pollution. What’s more, a plan like this brings long-term possibilities to raise infrastructure finance from the land values created by development certainties.  A green belt with fingers through it.

Something similar was written in Edinburgh’s “Vision for Capital Growth” six years ago. It found much favour, was in line with the law and encouraged by Scottish Government planning policy. It’s still city policy.

But the comforting pull of our security blanket is so strong that when SESPlan appears I think I’m going to be disappointed. As so often in our country, the “old math mind” will have its way.  Poor Linus.


First published in the Scotsman May 2012


Thirteen years ago this week the first MSPs arrived in the new Scottish Parliament.  I’m not sure we can yet list many big achievements.  The Parliament’s budget doubled in the first ten years but, comparing ourselves then and now and with counterparts across Europe, we find our democracy is weaker and our public services still failing deliver the outcomes we need. We see election turn-outs down again. We see our people suffering some of the worst health in Europe and worse than average schooling. We see the places we build and live in called ‘mediocre’ even by the Scottish Government’s own economic advisers.  For the first few years you can put that paucity of achievement down, understandably, to parliament and ministers finding their feet.  Now it’s because SNP ministers, with full control of parliament, are dragging their feet.

And that’s understandable too. As nationalists seeking statehood for Scotland, they want to demonstrate that the Scottish Parliament, part of the UK but with almost the same powers over its domestic policy as those of any sovereign state, is inadequate and incapable of improving the lot of the Scottish people.

Thus, with not much else to talk about, the debate, as they want, is all about the boundaries of power of the Scottish state.  If not about independence, it’s about devo-max or devo-plus (and maybe devo-less will appear soon!).  So the main political action from ministers is about getting more power out from the UK government or pulling more power in from Scottish local government.

It’s all about the state, not the people.  We’re having the wrong constitutional debate. It’s time we started talking about the people, not the state.

Although to be fair, that’s what our political thinkers, from the Jimmy Reid Foundation on the left to Reform Scotland on the right and the all-party Centre for Scottish Public Policy, have been doing for a while now, though largely ignored by parliamentarians and public. Read what they all have to say and see, from everything we know from ourselves and from around the world, that our people’s well-being grows when power is local.  Turn that on its head and we can surely say that when power is concentrated in the state, our top-heavy and well-funded Scottish state, our well-being shrinks.  The big question they pose is – how can the communities and people up and down Scotland take control from the state and into their own hands?

That’s where the real constitutional debate needs to be.  Around a radical constitutional option that puts Scotland back into the hands of its people. To coin a word: devo-local.  If politics is to be about people, this devo-local, and not the statist notion of independence, is the next step onwards from that historic devolutionary change thirteen years ago.  It is what Scottish Labour, true to its values and roots, ought to be talking about.

Defining that vision of a locally-devolved Scotland is enough to fuel months of debate, as it should.  But the guiding principle is this.  That all public service provision should be devolved to the local,  except those specifically reserved to Scottish central government.   The same ‘reserved powers’ principle is embedded in the Act which set up our new Scottish Parliament and itself reflects the principle of subsidiarity upon which governance in most of the rest of Europe is based.

That principle means placing powers to govern public services into the hands of the people who use and rely upon them and placing the powers to shape the economy and environment of a place into the hands of the people who live and work there. It means local NHS services being governed, provided and audited locally. It means education, from nursery through to college, being governed and provided according to local needs and direction. It means local roads and transport and regeneration being funded and determined locally.  And it must mean a far greater proportion of taxation to do all that being set and raised locally, leading even to different taxes in different places.  A shocking thought in Scotland; commonplace throughout Europe where people seem to do very well by it.

It is shocking to us because our local government, while judged ‘efficient’ in management, is broken in reputation, denuded of powers and lacking in democratic accountability and support. It’s why most last week asked themselves – why vote?  In much of Europe it is local elections, not parliamentary elections, where turnout is highest. In Scotland, exacerbated by the foolish voting system we endured again last week, we see voter turn-out down and competition to be elected at yet another low point, lower than anywhere else in Europe.

“Devo-local” is twin track.  It will be steady, not a big bang. But alongside wholesale transfer of money and powers from the central state to the local, there needs to be an almighty democratic reform of the way in which we do local politics and local government.  In effect, we need a new constitutional settlement within Scotland. We need a local democracy which is by law independent of Scottish ministers and which in its day-to-day operation, and not just in a once-in-five-years vote, answers to local people not national ‘targets’. That means strong and competent local councils and, to some (but not me), directly-elected mayors or provosts.  It also means devolution from the council to neighbourhood bodies, themselves elected, which govern the more local places in which people live.  More elected local ‘politicians’?  Of course – we have far, far fewer people elected from our communities to govern ourselves than any other European country. Electing our neighbours to help govern the place we live is a cornerstone of change.

It’s time to set out a new – relevant – vision for Scotland’s people with a different kind of constitutional settlement.  Not more power for the state within new borders.  But more day-to-day power for our cities, towns, communities and families together to make their own communal decisions for their own lives.