Monday, 24 August 2015

Our Flagging Local Democracy

No taxation without representation!

So went the cry of the American colonists in the 1700s at the imposition by the remote British parliament of things like the Sugar Tax. Here in Scotland in the year 2015 we’re not short of representation and we may even see a new kind of Sugar Tax (that’s another blog for another day) but the connection between the rates we pay and the people we elect has become incredibly blurred.

We have community councillors, local councillors, constituency MSPs, regional MSPs, MPs and MEPs. We have a basket of different taxes and charges to pay for different services. How do we connect the two things?


Take local government for example. Where I am in Musselburgh, we used to have a Town Council that met in the Town Hall and levied local taxes. These days I pay Council Tax (“not a tax for council services” is how the council’s own invoice puts it) to East Lothian Council based in Haddington thirteen miles away, and the rate of that tax is decided by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh, which has for the past eight years imposed a tax freeze.

So, when I see local services being cut back, charges going up and much-needed investment stagnant, to whom do I vent my frustration? Community councillors? No, they have no teeth and no budget. (Indeed on the one occasion I attempted to speak to them about a local issue all my phone calls and emails went unanswered.) East Lothian Council? No, it’s in a financial armlock. Scottish ministers? Ah, then it's a matter for local councils.

Cracking this crazy situation is hard, so we find it easy to become distracted by things such as boundaries and flags. Yes, flags. The droopy state of the Saltire above Musselburgh Town Hall was briefly front page news. It even prompted a twitchy response from the Labour leader of the council:


As my Green colleague Andy Wightman pointed out on Twitter, surely what matters is what happens in the Town Hall not what flies above it.

And boundaries. The latest proposals from the boundary commission have caused the same Labour council leader to have another fit of the vapours, recklessly hinting at school catchment changes when in fact those are entirely within the council’s gift. The commission is trying to equalise council wards and in East Lothian that means reducing the number from seven to six, and the number of councillors from 23 to 22. At the moment if you live in Musselburgh, Wallyford, Whitecraig, Haddington and Humbie you have 3 councillors; the commission proposes that you get 4, increasing your democratic representation.

In the last week I’ve seen Labour and SNP politicians freaking out at the prospect of change, wheeling out the same lame excuse that constituents will be confused. Even worse, East Lothian Council’s official response to the commission’s proposals whines that some councillors will see their workload increase as a result. Because sharing out the needs of a population with three other councillors is going to be harder than sharing with two others? And these guys are responsible for our schools!

Like I say, it’s all a distraction from the increasingly urgent need to renew the connection between who we elect and how we pay for services at different levels. It’s hard to see any party going into the 2016 election offering to keep councils in a financial armlock. Calls are growing all time, from left, right and centre.

Local autonomy is taken for granted in other countries where they have higher levels of engagement in local politics, both in terms of people voting and standing for election. Sceptics point to the poor quality of some local councillors and community councils (indeed, not all communities have a community council when of course democracy should be hard-wired) but I think that’s precisely why we should do it. By increasing the responsibility we can drive up the quality of local decision-making.


I began with some revolutionary Americans, and I’ll finish with one. Lincoln famously said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

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