Thursday, 24 May 2012

Renewing Local Democracy?

There is a consensus that turnout in local elections is not high enough - the recent Scottish Council Elections achieved a 38% turnout - and as a result many a think-tank is putting their pointy brains in gear to come up with solutions.

The latest is Reform Scotland who have raised the thorny issue of reducing the number of Councils making them more powerful by taking on some of the roles carried out by quangoes, strengthening community councils, creating area committees and, oh yes, elected 'Mayors'. Much of this is worthy and worth debate but is any of it the antidote to public engagement or low electoral turnout? Sadly I think not. It seems to me that Reform have gathered together a number of things that may or may not need fixing but are essentially about how local democracy is managed and therefore about as sexy as a managerial textbook (apologies to all the managers out there - you do a great job really, those textbooks paid off). 

Before I go through the document 'Renewing Local Government' a quick declaration - I've been a member of a political party for 26 years and was an elected councillor for 12 years and when not standing for election myself have been either an election agent or a activist knocking doors. I've seen how political parties engage and how the voters engage both at election time and in between.

The headline issue of reducing the number of Councils is one area that I don't have much of a problem with in principle and there seems to be some merit is what is proposed in Reform Scotland's report. It's a debate that needs to be had though if Councils were to actually arrive at a radical shared services agenda this might not be needed. The option of reduction might act as both carrot and stick to get Councils speaking to one another to progress shared services which at present can be best described as stalled or becalmed. Bottom line though is that the size of a Council will not in itself encourage more public engagement or drive up turnout at elections. Reorganisation is the bureaucracy that delivers the services that the citizens need and demand.

Another area where I would applaud Reform is in raising the issue of power over local services. Since devolution there has been a tendency for the Scottish Government to direct or take over certain functions - see Police and Fire. There was always a fear that devolution would lead to the Parliament taking over local services. In reality with Scottish Ministers of whatever stripe hold local authorities to account - they provide the lions share of the money after all - it was and is really up to local government to raise its game and demonstrate sound management alongside dynamic thinking to improve delivery and outcomes of local services. Still a debate would be useful to clear the air and set down markers.  

Reform spend some time in their report calling for a beefing up of Community Councils and a devolving of powers to them to empower them and make them more attractive for a wider cross section of their local community to actually get involved. It is a general truism that Community Councillors are rarely elected as they rarely achieve the number of nominations that would trigger an election and the electorate having to choose who would represent them on the Community Council. It would be interesting to see what turnout would be in these elections as while some electors might struggle to name their local authority councillors I'd hazard a guess they would be totally flummoxed if asked to name their community councillors and consequently even less likely to vote. Don't get me wrong I think community councils are a good thing but I think there is a huge variation in their representativeness and their effectiveness. One area where they can and some do have an influence is over planning. As a former member of a Planning Committee I know first hand how the committee members can be persuaded by a well made argument for or against a planning proposal from a community council.

Linked to more powers to community councils Reform also put forward the idea of 'area committees'. These already exist in a range of rural and rural/urban authorities and in cities like Edinburgh there are now well established 'Local Neighbourhood Partnerships' which are local community planning partnerships involving Police, NHS, Community Councils and others (in the case of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership this includes the Fire service, Port of Leith Housing Association, Voluntary Organisations and Forth Ports) along with the locally elected councillors. As effectively consultative committees of the Council they agree a local community plan and inform delivery of local services. There is a case to made that these should be beefed up and given more powers particularly spending powers.

The other 'innovation' that Reform are keen on is the issue of elected 'Mayors' (their term - I know in Scotland we have Provosts not Mayors). They say these elected figureheads would have real power to lead Councils and make decisions. Great. Only one or maybe two or three problems. If they have lots of power where does that power come from? Is it to be devolved down from the Parliament - there may be a case for that and Reform do say elsewhere in the document that they want more powers devolved Councils (transferred from quangos or boards). That then begs the question of who has the power - the Mayor or the Council? And where does that leave the area committees and the empowered Community Councils? Can the Mayor overrule the all of these layers?   Getting back to Reforms initial point about driving up voter turnout. If we look at the recent London Mayoral election are there pointers there as to whether elected Mayors are the way to go? Well as an observer rather than a participant I'd say what Londoners got was a pretty poor contest between two 'personalities' where if there was a debate on policy issues it passed me by pretty comprehensively. In terms of turnout the Mayoral contest was a turn-off with only 38% of the London electorate turning out to vote. Hang on a minute 38% that's the same as the turnout in the Scottish local government elections! So having mayoral contests even between household names like Boris Johnston and Ken Livingstone does not one hot electoral contest make.

Again I come back to the view that worthy though some of Reforms ideas are none of them are likely to set the heather on fire with the electorate. None of them are likely to lead to the increase in voter turnout that they are hoping for. None of them are in my view likely to lead to more engagement and involvement from the electorate in local democracy. Sad to say its at worst rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and at best it's some ways of managing or arranging local democracy that may or may not be worthy of debate.

However I will conclude by thanking Reform for getting my thinking engaged on the subject of local democracy and electoral engagement. I've got more to say on the issue but will save that for another day.

Rob is a former convener of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership and was a member of the SNP Local Government Committee from 1996-2003.

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