Localism and Subsidiarity

by Elias Blum

Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Scotland’s 32 so called ‘local’ Councils are really regional-level bodies, covering large areas – Highland Council covers a land area the size of Belgium, with no effective parish, burgh, town or community level government below the regional scale.

Being distant and remote, having relatively few powers, and being permitted little discretion in matters of policy or finance, Scotland’s Councils operate quite anonymously – as instruments of bureaucratic administration, not local democracy. The effect of this centralisation is deeply damaging to the health of our democracy and to the quality of life of ordinary people in many parts of the country. It stunts initiative, encourages apathy and dependence, allows urban blight and rural rot to go unchecked, undermines civic pride and identity, and denies any real sense of communal self-government. Centralisation is part of what makes us passive subjects, not active citizens.

Of course, there are so-called ‘community councils’ in many places, particularly in rural areas, but these are so small, so lacking in powers, responsibilities, and financial and administrative resources, as to be useless, or next-to-useless, as instruments of local democracy and civic empowerment.

Even as toothless talking-shops, whose only role is to ‘reflect the interests of local people’, community councils are ineffective. They have only the most tenuous democratic mandate, since most ‘elected’ community council seats are uncontested, meaning that vacancies are filled, in effect, by co-optation. Far from representing the interests and concerns of local people, community councils are often little more than self-selecting, self-perpetuating little cliques of NIMBYs.

From this sorry situation I take two lessons. Firstly, that we need more, more effective, and more autonomous, local government in Scotland. Secondly, that existing structures are not fit for purpose, and that any meaningful reform must combine useful powers with the ability to use those powers in ways that are visible and democratically accountable.

The most promising local government reform in the UK was the establishment of the Greater London Mayor and Assembly. This system, which features a strong, directly elected mayor, vested with power and responsibility for matters of strategic policy, under the scrutiny and supervision of a proportionally elected assembly or council, has also been adopted following local referendums in several English regional cities (most recently Bristol).

This mayoral model appears, for the most part, to increase engagement in local democracy, and I believe that serious consideration should be given to adopting a similar form of government in Scotland’s major cities. This would, at least, end the anonymity of numpty councillors. The elected Mayors (or ‘Lord Provosts’, if one prefers the traditional title) of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee (and perhaps of Stirling, Perth and Inverness too, if their ‘city’ status is to be anything but a meaningless honorific) would be locally important and highly visible political figures. Their names and faces would be known to local voters, and they would have the opportunity to achieve national fame or notoriety.

Outside the big cities, perhaps the best solution is to restore the burgh level of government, restoring the Burgh Councils which were abolished under the Whitehall-driven centralising mania of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1973, and providing for the chartering of new burghs where local residents so demand. The newly restored or created Burgh Councils need not be the corrupt and sprawling cesspits of one-party rule that their predecessors had, in many cases, become. Small councils, perhaps with just five or seven members, each responsible for a particular set of duties and functions, might perfectly capable of doing the job.

In my enthusiasm for effective and responsible localism, it is tempting to say, ‘All power to the Councils!’ However, it must be recognised that localism, if excessive, and if unchecked, can result in particularism, petty corruption, and violations of minority rights. Perhaps a better statement of true subsidiarity would be more along the lines of:

‘Considerable regulatory, administrative and fiscal powers to the regional, City and Burgh Councils, according to the Constitution and the law, with effective mayoral leadership, proper delegation to technically competent administrative officials, adequate juridicial safeguards to ensure due process and the protection of individual and minority rights, independent auditing to ensure honest accounting and prevent corruption, transparent means of administrative repeal and redress to protect against maladministration, and mechanisms for the referring of decisions to national bodies for the purposes of co-ordination and infrastructural planning’.

What it loses in pithiness it gains in practicality.