Trevor Davies – Local democracy begins where people are: in the local

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.

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 it’s possible to live on (up from 18% in 2012).  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’.

[What follows is a shortened version of Trevor Davies’ essay Up Close and Personal first published in Towards the Local]

Money is poured in. Scottish public spending rose from about £8,200 per head in 1997/8 to over £12,000 per head in 2011/12. 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

When public services no longer operate as they should,  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 removes democratic accountability under the guise of ‘commercial confidentiality’ and converts the public’s money into private profit. That all changes our social morality.

Does it therefore surprise us – under the weight of institutional scandal and the failure of 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 characterise who we have become. This reform is not 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.

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.

It’s a big task. Everything pushes the other way – towards the centre, towards the big, towards the private, towards the elite.  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 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.  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,  purpose will replace targets as the management principle, making money better spent. Intimate local connections, not top-down targets, will manage complexity and variance.

There are many tools 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.  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 be able  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. To accept that is hard for those currently in power, but I believe it to be the right and adventurous path.

Trevor Davies is an honorary professor in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow and a student at Edinburgh College of Art.

The full version of this essay appears in Towards the Local published by Scottish Fabians.


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