As champions of local democracy, the third sector must fight to be heard
THIS year’s local government elections are unique, contested in isolation from any national poll but fought against the backdrop of the next big test of Scottish political opinion, the 2014 Referendum.
Yes, of course, the Referendum is important, and could well prove to be a turning point in the history of this nation, but its presence casts a dark shadow over this year’s council elections in a number of ways.
Firstly, just when a true, localised test of the 32 local authorities and their track records delivering public services seemed set for a clean contest, the Referendum has polluted the atmosphere, at least as far as the media, the commentariat and indeed many national politicians are concerned.
As Westminster gets down and dirty with the Scotland Bill and the plans for the Referendum, with Select Committee hearings and Scottish Questions dominated by preparations for 2014, Scottish MPs attention has been turned away from councils to the constitution.
Similarly, our MSPs have been concentrating on a range of issues at Holyrood all aimed at political positioning, and posturing, in preparation for the great debate to come. The focus on fiscal autonomy and changes to the powers which they enjoy is easier than the hard graft of driving forward the changes which are required to get control of the existing budget, such as the reform of our public services.
And what of the other members of the parliamentary political class, Scotland’s MEPs? Well, sightings of them on the council campaign trail appear few and far between, as the Auld Alliance partner goes to the polls to determine the future of France, and with it the EU, their political attention is on Paris rather than Perth.
In other words, the Scottish local government elections have been short of the headliners of the political cast, and the council players are struggling to step into the limelight, at least at the national level. Of course, it is a different story, or rather stories, locally with a wide range of election activities underway as council candidates from across the political spectrum go in search of public support.
Indeed, one of the key features of this year’s local government elections is that without the broad sweep of national campaigning, as has happened on previous occasions when the council poll has accompanied a Scottish Parliament or UK election, a uniform result is less likely. Given the relative weight of local issues in this context, it is more likely that there will be significant variation in results in different parts of the country.
Although these variations can be seen as a positive, as individual councils seek to differentiate themselves from their neighbours, the lack of a national driver to get the votes out on polling day may have a seriously detrimental impact on turn-out for this election. If, as a number of people are predicting, the total votes cast in individual elections sink, to perhaps as little as half of the symbolic 50 per cent participation rate, then this election could be remembered as the end of local democracy as we know it.
Another threat to local government is looming, depending upon the results and the outcome of coalition discussions in council chambers the length and breadth of the country. If, for example, the SNP do manage to secure a place, leading or not, within coalitions taking charge of all seven Scottish cities, then a new age of central command and control politics could dawn. In that event, it will be incredibly tempting for the SNP Scottish Government, in a hurry on the road to the referendum, to dictate the tiniest of City Chambers policy details.
Indeed, it would be entirely possible for the centralist thinking which is leading to the creation of a single Scottish Police Service and its Fire & Rescue counterpart, to be transferred over into other areas of service provision. Everything from primary care to primary schools could be lined up as the next public service to become national, rather than local.
So what are the centrifugal forces that can help to strengthen localism and counter the centripetal pull of an all-powerful Scottish Government? Is it possible to conceive of more power being devolved to the local level or is talk of a renaissance in local democracy simply spin? Are there any actual signs that this local government election will do what it says on the tin, i.e. lead to better, stronger local government?
Within each of the mainstream political parties it is increasingly apparent that central control is being strengthened as all roads lead to the Referendum. So, who will stand up for local democracy, especially when it involves going against the party line, dictated by each of their central HQ’s? As the Scottish Government prepares the ground for the big vote to come, and the opposition line up in response, who will speak up for the local level, and put the case for more, not less, power being devolved out from Holyrood?
One group, although it is perhaps an oxymoron to label them so, are the Independent councillors. A key feature of this election is that the number of Independent councillors is likely to both increase in their absolute quantum, and also increase in terms of their power and influence. Holding the balance of power in an increasing number of coalitions across the country, it is likely that Independent councillors will be in a more influential position than ever before.
Another group able, and increasingly willing, to strengthen the role of councils is the emerging leadership of local government, from all parties and from none. There is a growing core, hopefully to be supplemented with an injection of new voices, which sees not only the relevance of local government, but the need for more decision making at the local level.
This group of elected members will have to fight hard to be heard amidst the clamour of the Referendum’s early skirmishes, but they certainly have the voice, and can easily demonstrate that Scottish local government has the talent. Whether it is in Scotland’s seven cities, or in councils representing different urban and rural mixes, it is time for Scottish local government to realise that it is stronger together, weaker apart. The colour of coalitions which emerge from the election will tell us if they get that.
The final group, however, which can make a critical difference to the localism agenda is the readership of TFN. By turning economic adversity to advantage, the third sector can drive a reforming agenda through the heart of Scottish local government, whether that’s in terms of the capital base or the shape of revenue expenditure. From active asset management being used to secure a transfer of land and buildings, to the redesign, development and delivery of key aspects of public service provision, the third sector is in a position to help Scottish councils save themselves.
So, go out and use your vote wisely, but see that action, the exercise of your democratic right, as the starting point on an exciting, challenging journey to strengthen local accountability, to reshape the interface between council and community and, yes, to create Scotland’s very own Big Society.