Bringing It All Back Home
Scotland’s sprawling local government is the least democratic in Europe, leading to stasis and alienation. Drawing on stunning local successes both here and abroad, in the latest extract from Closer – Lesley Riddoch calls for radical decentralisation.
When we are young, life is completely local. Adventure is the little wall you finally have the courage to walk along alone. Nature is the small patch of dandelions halfway home from school. Huge is the Goliath crane. And loud is the sound that wakes you from sleep in the middle of the night. OK – my early ideas were deeply coloured by growing up in Belfast. But that’s the point. That’s the power of locality. It creates a sense of normality – even in abnormal situations – through deep, subconscious attachment.
People are increasingly understanding the power of early years in shaping children and their lifelong outlooks and capacities. By the age of three, children have acquired (or failed to acquire) half their adult vocabulary, learned teamwork, negotiating skills and bonded strongly with the people and ways of life around them. They do that – or fail to do that – in particular places. If Jesuits believed they owned a young life by directing it until the age of seven, how much more powerful is the place that forms us until our late teenage years? And yet ‘normal’ life in Scottish places disempowers local communities and denies citizens an effective and organised way to pour energy into that most important place – their own backyard.
Why? Because Scots have the biggest councils with the lowest levels of local democratic activity, the biggest and most remote landowners and the weakest community councils in Europe. The land we see, the streets we walk on, the rivers we walk beside, the problems we witness – they’re all there for someone else to fix, somewhere else to tackle. It’s why we pay our council tax, isn’t it? For someone else to bag problems and take them away? Except they can’t.
The average population of a Scottish council is 163,000 people. Most of our European neighbours have county councils this size. But they also have a smaller, more loved, and more vibrant ‘delivery tier’ of community-sized local councils. Scotland’s 32 enormous councils try to do everything – the strategic co-ordination work of a county council and the truly local delivery work of a parish council. It’s an impossible task and the community level suffers. Genuinely local simply doesn’t exist in Scotland – except where hard-pressed, determined, unfunded voluntary groups have decided to act and pump life back into their communities.
How does this picture square with the Scotland of a hundred Highland Games, several dozen Feisean (Gaelic learning festivals), night schools, sports clubs and folk nights? Surely Scotland is full of particular places – distinct, fiercely defended by their inhabitants and loved. All true. But it’s true despite the official structures – not because of them. Even the keenest volunteers who make life vibrant and interesting don’t run the places they light up – ‘local’ units of governance are too large, election is too dominated by political parties. Towns, villages, islands and communities are all run by council hqs in larger settlements elsewhere. And it’s been like that for a while.
The democratic heart of ‘small town’ Scotland was ripped out in 1996, when 32 unitary authorities replaced 65 old style councils – nine regions, 53 districts and three island councils. The big local downsizing had already occurred. In 1975, more than 400 counties, counties of cities, large and small burghs were swept away and before that in 1930, 871 parish councils axed as democratic structures.
The smaller system severed the vital link between people and place in Scotland. This is where the ‘best wee country in the world’ is currently run – somewhere else. In Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany and Belgium, towns like St Andrews, Saltcoats, Kirkcaldy, Fort William, Kelso, or Methil and islands like Barra, North Uist, Westray and Unst would have their own councils because our neighbours fought to remain localised. Scots inhabit the least locally empowered country (perhaps) in the developed world and tend to look higher (to national policy) or lower (to micromanaged families) for solving problems – even when the answer is genuine local control. Its absence is Scotland’s enduring blind spot.
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Wick used to be one of the largest herring ports in Europe, the county town of Caithness (sorry, Thurso) and a royal burgh. Now it’s run from council headquarters a three-hour rail journey away in Inverness. Meanwhile, 1,200 miles further north sits Hammerfest – the world’s northernmost town. In 1900, Wick and Hammerfest were both busy North Sea ports. Today both have around 9,000 inhabitants – but one is thriving, one struggling.
Hammerfest was the first place in Northern Europe to have street lighting powered by river hydros and funded by a local tax on beer in 1897. Townspeople went on to experiment with that turbine technology in the fast running straits at nearby Kvalsund. Years of relatively hassle-free access to their own waters helped the local energy company Hammerfest Strom become experts in tidal turbine technology and now the company is providing the kit for Scottish Power to make Islay the world’s first tidal-powered island in 2015. The Hammerfest firm now called Andritz Hydro Hammerfest – has also won the tender to exploit the mother of all tidal stream sites off Duncansby Head in the Pentland Firth – sixteen miles north of declining Wick, which lost its official port status a decade back.
It’s the ultimate irony. Wick’s inhabitants survived centuries of pummelling by the North Sea aboard fishing boats, lifeboats, oil supply boats and pilot ships. But Wickers didn’t have easy access, local control, cash, investment or sufficient local belief to turn their intimate knowledge of a cruel sea into energy harnessing technology. Today the ports look very different – one is constantly busy, the other very quiet. One has been raising its own taxes and deciding how to spend them for centuries. One hasn’t. I’ll grant you, other factors are also at play. But the Wickers’ frustration at being forced to tackle decline with both hands tied behind their backs is palpable. And Wick is not alone.
A few years back, I was asked to speak at a Rotary event in Fort William. As the crowd gathered in the reception area, conversation was downbeat. High rates meant shops were closing. Boarded up windows, Poundstretcher chain stores and a legion of charity shops had begun to dominate the High Street. The ring road meant most people bypassed the town. The crumbling 1960s facades of many buildings needed repair and, despite the innovation of the Mountain Film Festival, mountain biking, the ski lift at nearby Aonach Mor and the enduring natural spectacle of Ben Nevis, Fort William itself seemed shabby.
Once spoken about, it was a situation that plunged the entire banqueting suite of retired town planners, retailers, secretaries, shop owners, lorry drivers, council officials and civil engineers into gloom. So I ditched my speech. Asking for a show of hands to demonstrate the level and range of expertise in that room alone, I suggested they had more than enough experience, commitment and affection to resurrect Fort William themselves.
The mood lifted. There was a momentary buzz. Folk looked around like chefs planning a complicated, ambitious menu. Yes – all the raw ingredients are to hand. Yes, we could easily work together and put the time in. We could fix everything here. We could raise money, holdceilidhs, get the young folk involved and… then something visibly knocked the wind from their collective sails. It’s not our place to do this. We aren’t councillors. Anything we do will be against some rule. And there’s no love lost for well-meaning amateurs. The moment passed.
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If self-determination is good enough for Scotland, it’s good enough for Scotland’s communities too. If power and responsibility can renew Scotland, then a democratic stimulus can also give a leg up to capable, active communities. Instead they are being micro-managed badly from on high while politicians bemoan punter apathy.
In the absence of truly local councils, development trusts have become the most effective vehicles for communities that want control of their destinies. There’s a legal question mark over community councils owning assets. So development trusts have been set up to own and manage orchards, housing, land buyouts, pubs, libraries, bridges, libraries, community centres, wind turbines, shops, transport– and in the process a very practical, capable and focused set of people has been gathered.
Some of the poorest Glaswegians worked together to restore Govanhill Baths – a decade-long campaign to retain a swimming pool against the wishes of Glasgow Council. The project has produced much more than a beautiful set of Victorian Baths – the people of Govanhill are now purposefully organised in their own development trust and are taking on responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.
The more services that can be channeled through this popular, community-driven vehicle, the better.
And yet the vast bulk of social and welfare spending in Govanhill and elsewhere is channeled through local offices of large councils whose paid staff often live elsewhere. The present council setup delivers a clear message to local, active, capable Scots. Your job is to stand still while we fix you. Happily most folk in development trusts aren’t listening. West Kilbride in Ayrshire is another sparkling example of successful, community-driven regeneration where conventional ‘top down’ policy had drawn a blank. This nineteenth century former weaving town suffered from high unemployment and competition from out-of-town shopping centres. At one point, half the local shops were boarded up.
In 1998, the West Kilbride Community Initiative was set up by locals with one craft shop opening on the High Street. Other skilled crafts people took over derelict shops and profits were ploughed back into the town. In 2006, West Kilbride won the Enterprising Britain competition. Now eight artists’ studios, an exhibition gallery, a delicatessen, a clock and watch repairer, a bridal shop and a graphic design business have opened and the existing butcher, baker and greengrocer have been able to stay put. None of this is formal council activity. If local people had not decided to take action in a voluntary development trust, West Kilbride might today be dead as a dodo – or as lifeless as many neighbouring towns without the same level of community control.
Connected, powerful communities – based on the kind of dynamism demonstrated by development trusts – could generate energy, supply district heating, find work for unemployed young people, tackle local flooding problems, fix derelict buildings, build and manage housing and keep an eye on old folk, helping them stay out of hospital and the personal care budget stay under control. This kind of social transformation is already happening via the development trust that runs the island of Eigg – and the West Whitlawburn housing co-operative.
There’s a lesson and a challenge here for the Scottish Government.
As councils face the task of saving millions from budgets, hundreds of land and wind-energy rich community development trusts are deciding how to spend their dividends. Should they treat the cash as ‘extra money’ – providing window boxes, traffic-calming or other marginal improvements when roads are pot-holed, energy costs are through the roof, old folk need carers and young parents need affordable child-care? Or, if they spend money on core council services, will they prompt local authorities to pullout altogether and end up as diy communities where residents pay council tax for next-to-nothing?
The solution might be to transfer some council tax income to self-governing communities. What’s the alternative? Do we just pat successful communities on the head and continue to fund municipal failure?
There are around 200 development trusts in Scotland – community led, multiple activity, enterprising, partnership oriented and keen to move away from reliance on grants. Could they help run Scotland?
They already are. Cost-cutting councils are already closing libraries and village halls. The SNP government does not appear to smile upon our over-large councils. Nor does it want community-sized councils to take over. Development Trusts may seem to be an ideal intermediate solution. But can this ad hoc situation work in the long term when all involved are un-elected volunteers and councils still expect council tax bills to be paid regardless of local service provision?
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I visited the small town of Seyðisfjörður in northeast Iceland (population 668) and was impressed to see gangs of youngsters mending fences, mowing grass, and painting walls at the local hospital. ‘Yes, the municipality decided to pay them a small amount to fix the town every summer. The older kids guide the young ones, they don’t get bored, they learn to earn money, work as a team and we get everything ready for the tourist season.’ It made so much sense.
Later, in snow so deep it would have brought Scotland grinding to a halt, I visited the Medas Outdoor Kindergarten in Arctic Norway. The national Norwegian government had called for farmers to diversify and for children to have at least one full day outside per week. So the local municipality backed a bright idea by local farmers – a farm kindergarten where the children feed and care for the animals, make hay, grow vegetables and sell eggs and tomatoes in local villages at the weekends to raise funds for school trips. There are now 100 similar farm kindergartens across northern Norway. Did health and safety people from Oslo have concerns? ‘No, I think we are all happy here. Why would outside agencies get involved?’
Now it’s true that many communities at present are not mini nirvanas.
Too often, in the absence of real democracy, gatekeepers and cabals have taken over. There’s no clear idea of what community development is for since it seems to duplicate what councils should be doing. And whilst Development Trusts are thriving, they make huge demands on time and voluntary resources. Local is haphazard because it exists in the nation’s collective blind spot.
The answer is more structure, more democracy, more functions, more expectation, more asset transfers, more connection, more grassroots integration and more power – not less. Government leaders and distant bureaucrats cannot act endlessly as our absent mentors and proxies. Communities need to do some light, medium and eventually heavy lifting ourselves. But no athlete ever started a long race without a warm up. Currently communities who want a share of the action must run the equivalent of a democratic marathon after decades struggling to run for the bus. Scots have such a slender grasp on local power that participation in the community often means no more than buying a paper.
Of course, there would be problems with radical decentralisation – we’re all out of democratic practice. But the evidence from development trusts and other countries is that we can pick up the ropes pretty quickly.
It’s time for the Scottish Government to admit that scale hasn’t ended the scourge of poverty and disadvantage – it’s just meant decision makers don’t have to bump into it.
In Scotland, places are dying because of remote governance despite being full of human talent, capacity, problem-solving energy, history and natural resources. Yet place is revolutionary because place is where people are. Empowerment and self-determination are principles for everyday life – not just the independence referendum.
This is an edited extract from Lesley Riddoch’s new book
Blossom – what Scotland needs to Flourish
Blossom is £11.99 & can be bought in bookshops, online at www.luath.co.uk/blossom.html, or Amazon. Or send a cheque for £11.99 to Lesley Riddoch at the address below for a signed copy (post and packing free & include the words you’d like written. Please allow 10 days for delivery) or on kindle
Another Side blog — www.lesleyriddoch.co.uk
The Nordics — www.nordichorizons.org