Lesley Riddoch 1st May 2022
The big results from Thursday’s local elections are already in. A shamefully low turnout, which will be deemed “impressive” if it tops the previous record high of 46 per cent.
The lowest ever number of candidates and a high number of cancelled elections where the number of candidates precisely fits the number of seats in each multi-member constituency.
And the largest amount of myopia amongst politicians and commentators about the likely cause.
It’s not the STV voting system that has foxed voters. It’s not national issues like independence that have pushed local issues aside – that’s a symptom of the problem, not the cause. It’s certainly not voters finding the local domain too unimportant, cheesy, worthy or bereft of importance.
It’s that Scotland doesn’t actually have local government. Instead, it has enormous, regional-sized councils – everywhere but the northern and western isles, Scotland the largest ‘local’ authorities in the developed world. And whilst that scale may work in our biggest cities, it’s killing town, rural, island and village Scotland, by failing to harness the talents and energies of local people.
If the days of absolute remote control by Westminster are over – and half of Scots would have it completely removed – why on earth is this distant, micro-managing of local places allowed to rumble on?
Do politicians believe there is no talent in the local domain and that only a few, gifted, controlled and highly paid people – fae furth of the parish – possess the skills needed to run towns and islands? Has anyone examined the sluggishness and high cost that beset large monopolies and questioned if they really deliver economies of scale?
I’d guess the thankless nature of a councillor’s job is deterring activists from standing. Instead, energies are poured into community buyouts in which local people can exert meaningful control, instead of losing income, valuable time and the will to live, by traipsing back and forth to ‘local’ council HQs a day’s drive or several ferries away.
So, when Scots once again produce the lowest turnout for local elections in northern Europe this Thursday, it won’t be evidence of apathy or hostility to genuinely local government, since we don’t have any. It will be a plea for change – that falls on deaf ears.
Even though the bizarre power imbalance between centre and locality that is roundly ignored by all of Scotland’s political parties, is one of the biggest, hidden disruptors to the civic, political realm. Scotland is ignoring the strength of her people and their potential. It’s hobbling capable communities, then using their constructed dependency on remote authority to justify the status quo – an utterly disempowering, vicious circle.
Could it be otherwise? It is everywhere else.
In 2014, Norway’s ruling Conservatives tried to push through a merger of the country’s 429 municipalities in the name of efficiency. Two hundred local referendums were held and mergers were rejected in all but half a dozen. Partly as a result of this faux pas, Conservatives lost the next national election and most of the mergers are now reversed.
Why? Norwegians have long understood independence to mean rule by locals, not rule by Oslo. Their 1814 Constitution demanded every parish should be a municipal council and 1837 legislation delivered that – 70 years before national independence from Sweden.
According to Norway’s State Secretary for Local Government Ole Gustav Narud, small councils double up portfolios, cooperate with neighbours and hire education directors who are also part-time teachers. They don’t have a clutch of highly-paid officials. Because home lies a walk not a day’s drive away, council meetings are in the evening, so councillors aren’t paid because their day-jobs can continue. Poorer councils are supported by transfers from richer neighbours and central government. Mr Narud observes that neighbouring small councils cooperate – which private outsourcing companies cannot – and challenge one another with different ideas and ways of working. Large ‘monopoly’ councils do not.
It all works. One in 88 Norwegians stands for election, compared with 1 in 2071 in Scotland. We are missing a massive trick.
Across the world, Covid has given people experience of a life more local, with less pointless travel, less belief the good life resides elsewhere and a greater sense of connection with place. Across Europe, city populations are stagnating as folk move out, looking for greater connection with nature and control of their time. This should be a massive opportunity for rural Scotland but it can’t be realised without genuinely local control of land and the democratic process.
Take the Faroes. Dennis Holm was mayor of Vágur council on the Faroes’ southernmost island of Suðuroy until 2020.
Although Vágur has just 1377 inhabitants, it is (perhaps) the smallest town with a 50m Olympic standard swimming pool in the world, built by locals for a quarter of the full price, on land donated by a local business.
It happened for two reasons. A tiny, go-ahead local council and Pál Joensen, a local swimming star. After he won a silver medal at the European Championships in 2010, a radio commentator said: “Someone should build that man a pool, and name it after him.” So Vágur Council did.
Páls Høll (Paul’s Hall) opened in 2015 and kickstarted the transformation of this former fishing community into ‘an experience economy’ that aims to create such positive memories of childhood that locals leaving for education will soon return to start families. It’s worked. The town’s population is rising after 70 years of steady decline and development continues with a new multi-sports hall, a new Sports High School and 485% more visitor accommodation to cope with the influx of young sportspeople, families and tourists.
The funding is straight-forward – local councils get roughly 20% of income tax paid by locals and can choose how to spend it. No wonder they had an 88% turnout at the last elections and hundreds of candidates.
There’s a massive lesson in there for centralised, top-down Scotland. But is anyone in authority ready to act?