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 http://www.kpmg.com/UK/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/PDF/Latest News/living-­wage‐research-­october-­2013-­1.pdf
(7) http://www.scottsheconomywatch.com/brian-­ashcroas-­scottish/public-­spending/ using figures from GERS. Figures are total managed expenditure in 2011/12 prices

(8) Institute of Fiscal Studies http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn92.pdf

(9) https://www.vanguard-­‐method.com

(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) http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2010/12/31110906/0 “Delivering Better Places in Scotland” David Adams, Steve Tiesdell and George Weeks

(14) http://www.ads.org.uk/urbanism/features/leadership‐is-­key-­to-­creating-­better-­places

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