Public Law

Back in March, Ramsay and I blogged about our experiences from the COSLA and SOLAR conferences. At the time, I noted the anticipation around the imminently-expected first report by the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. That interim report was published at the end of last month and does make for some interesting reading.

The broad message from the Commission is that there has been a trend of centralisation in Scotland over the last 50 years, and that the Scottish system is one of the most centralised government structures in the Western world.

The heart of the report is, of course, far closer to home. The Commission’s primary concerns were how centralisation has affected local level participatory democracy in Scotland and identifying better ways to serve local communities. There are a number of key themes running through the report:

  • How a more decentralised approach to government could lead to more empowered decision-making at a local level. The Commission concluded that one of the most effective ways to empower local democracy is to create a system of greater fiscal autonomy and to allow communities the right to choose how much is invested in local services.
  • How to deliver decentralised governance most appropriately. The Commission noted the importance of striking a balance between ensuring parity across different areas through national standards and allowing local authorities the freedom to do what is best for their communities. Too much decentralisation might lead to perceptions of a “postcode lottery” for access to services. Under the new system, local authorities would still be expected to work within the same framework of national rights, but it would be for them to decide the more appropriate way of doing that and they would be allowed a margin of variation in determining local priorities.
  • Introducing a new way of thinking, moving away from the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to local government (or rather local democracy, which is the main focus of the Commission’s report) in Scotland, in recognition of the fact that what is right for, say, island communities is unlikely to be right for cities.
  • That participation in decision-making goes hand-in-hand with elected representation in building strong local democracy. Increasing participation and engagement means restoring confidence and trust in local and central government to foster a habit of citizenship and allowing democratic decisions to be better influenced and informed by the people.

The report acknowledges that the culture of centralisation won’t be easily undone and that developing a new approach could take 10 to 15 years of hard graft. The next stage of the Commission’s work will be to unpick how its interim report can be put into practice and describe the substantive changes that will need to be made. Councillor David O’Neill, the Commission’s Chair, has commented that this will require rethinking local democracy “from the bottom up”, rather than starting at the top and looking to see which powers might be trickled down from national government. The next instalment of the report is due in summer 2014. So stay tuned for more updates…

 

Gemma McKinlay

Associate at Brodies LLP
Gemma is a senior solicitor in Brodies market-leading Public Law & Regulatory team in. She advises on a range of public law and commercial issues.  Her specific areas of practice expertise include powers and duties of local and central government, statutory interpretation, equality and human rights, data protection and freedom of information laws.
Gemma McKinlay