From Scotland, a proposal for a new level of self-defining community power: Development Councils

The Scottish ideas-and-action network Common Weal (disclosure: our co-initiator Pat Kane is on their advisory board) is one of the best outcomes of the “festival of democracy” that was the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

They were themselves influenced very early on by Alternativet in Denmark, and (supported by their broad subscriber base) they have tirelessly managed to keep democratic and localist ideas on the agenda of Scottish politics.

Their latest idea springs out of a Scottish political context. There has been a growing impetus to reexamine Scottish local democracy for many years, with the Scottish Green party pressuring the governing Scottish National Party to reform further.

But Common Weal have walked into to the fray with a suggestion for an entirely new level of local government - what they call Development Councils (full paper here).

Now before you groan, “not another level of local government”, Common Weal’s long-standing point is that Scottish local authorities are, by a long measure, the largest and least accountable in Europe. Here’s their stats (the bar chart below is a European comparison of the average size of each government’s local constituencies):

  • The average European population size of the most local level of democracy is 17,241 citizens. The average population size of Scotland’s most local level of democracy is 169,525.

  • A Scottish local council is 10-times bigger than the European average, nearly 100-times bigger than in France or Cyprus and three-times bigger than the country with the next biggest average (Denmark).

  • The average land area of a European local authority is 38 square kilometres. The average land area of a Scottish local authority is 2502 square kilometres, more than 65 times the average.

To fix this, CW suggests that the Scottish Parliament “should create a new tier of local democracy at the community level”. Crucially they suggest that:

The size and shape of each new democratic area should be defined by communities themselves through a participatory process. Each area should then be represented by a Development Council, elected by every member of the community aged 16 or above. People would stand for election as individuals based on a short statement about their ideas for developing the community and voters would choose the visions and individuals they liked most.

Development Councillors would be volunteers, unpaid other than reasonable expenses. There would be no reorganisation of existing bureaucracies and existing local authorities would become Regional Councils. Regional Councils would continue to manage and deliver public services on behalf of both themselves and the Development Councils.

A system of reserved powers would make clear what powers are reserved to the Regional level; Development Councils would be free to set policy in any area not reserved and would be free to do so on an ‘as and when’ basis. Development Councils would have substantial autonomous budgets.

They would be free to set up a ‘Town Manager’s Office’ from within these budgets to give them the capacity to deliver the work programmes they develop. These would be delivered through a mixed model which would include working with the Regional Councils, Town Manager’s Offices, local voluntary organisations, social enterprises, development trusts and local businesses.

In any year where an election does not take place the Development Councils will be required to hold a Community Assembly in which every member of the community is free to attend and discuss the work of the Development Council.

The focus on all of this work would not be on management or administration but development and additionality. In time the case for mergers between existing local authorities to create genuinely regional authorities should be explored.

Development Councils would be primarily funded via a new property tax – which would replace the current Council Tax and would include both owned property and owned land. Details of this tax will be the subject of future study by Common Weal but a model based on a tax which raised the equivalent of £50 or £100 per person, per year is shown to illustrate the potential budgets of a Development Council in several villages and towns across Scotland.

The city of Perth, for example, could have a Development Council with an annual budget of between £2.3 and £4.6 million.

It is hoped that this proposal is accepted as a workable and attractive package which will result in a genuinely democratic transformation of Scottish communities - without the need for the kind of major bureaucratic reorganisations, which have proven a terminal barrier to previous attempts to reform local government. It is time for Scotland to be honest about the state of its democracy and to do something about it.

What regular followers of A/UK will quickly note is that this seems to be itself inspired by the practice of Flatpack Democracy - particularly in the way they use the Frome town budget as elected councillors, in a participatory way, to increase activity and quality-of-life in the area.

But what CommonWeal have tried to do is to suggest it as the basis for a reform of local government structure - and to further suggest that local taxation could resource the creative and developmental powers of local, self-defining communities.

There is, of course, a different political climate in Holyrood as compared to the rest of these islands - the Scottish Greens can exert some influence over the SNP government, who are the largest but not the majority party. So there is an opening, at the national-parliamentary level, for real reform.

Yet even with the current Tory government at Westminster, as we have previously reported, there seems to be at least professed interest in bringing resources and accountability to small-sized units of local power (see our blogs on their recently announced Civil Society Strategy). Common Weal’s ideas are worth reading for anyone’s inspiration.