Voters entering polling station

Something Wrong with Local Democracy

Robin McAlpine – 5 May 2022

From academics to democracy experts, local communities to activist, small businesses to political commentators, constitution-builders to serving councillors, it seems that absolutely everyone now recognises that there is something deeply wrong with local democracy in Scotland.

It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat all the evidence for this here – Common Weal’s research has shown that Scotland’s system of local democracy is so out of step with the rest of the developed world when it comes to size, responsiveness and representativeness that it doesn’t really look like a system of ‘local’ government at all.

Nor will you be likely to need a primer on the way Scotland has been centralised and the way that its budgets have been dragged further and further in the direction of Holyrood and further and further away from communities.

There is even a good chance that you’ll have a decent working memory of how we got here – the history of regional government in Scotland resisting the imposition of Thatcherite policies in the 1980s, the collapse of the Poll Tax and the way that Thatcherite Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth almost explicitly tried to neuter the power of regional and local government in a kind of revenge.

So what are we to do about it? Common Weal has a clear, strong proposal based around the idea of ‘Development Councils’, project- and action-focussed local councils at the town or village level with proper powers and budgets. Others believe we can revitalise Community Councils, some suggest directly-elected mayors, some want to see the voting system changed, some just want existing local authorities to be given more power and budget.

It is possible to argue for ages around the strengths and weaknesses of each (mayors centralise power locally, Community Councils barely function in some places, local authorities as we have them do not lack their own problems – though it is hard to argue that the STV voting system has been an outright success).

We find ourselves in a situation where everyone knows something is wrong, everyone knows something ‘should be done about it’ and there are loads of valid suggestions about what that could be which could form the basis of debate.

So why do we see no progress? In fact why are things getting worse? The majority of the responsibility for this rests with the Scottish Government – in a top-down country, lower levels of democracy can’t reform themselves and certainly can’t make unilateral decisions to become more powerful. Only the Scottish Government currently has the power to fix local democracy.

But it is a little too simplistic just to point the finger and say ‘it’s all their fault’. This was a sightly depressing conclusion that emerged from Common Weal’s extensive meetings and discussions with many groups when we were doing the Development Councils work. There is a real cynicism about local democracy in Scotland.

Why? There are probably a few reasons. First, older people we met with had direct or ‘folk memory’ not only of the District Council model abolished by Forsyth in 1993 but the preceding Burgh Council model – and the term ‘Rotten Burghs’ cropped up often. There were some dodgy practices in the more distant past and the District Councils themselves were seen as unresponsive.

Nor is disillusionment only a result of looking backwards. Another issue we picked up was that confidence in the cadre of politicians we have doesn’t appear to be very high. The fact that ‘more politicians’ seems to be such a toxic phrase for communities is telling.

But you’ll find that people everywhere moan about any bodies which make significant decisions about their lives – even the best systems of local democracy leave people to grump about potholes and parking spaces. So it’s not just cynicism about dodgy local councils from the past or duff politicians in the present.

It’s also about the ‘muscle memory’ of democracy. Like riding a bike or a hard day in the garden, if you’ve not been using a particular set of muscles and then you try and use them suddenly, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.

This is said too rarely – democracy isn’t something you’re in, it’s certainly not something that is done to you and it isn’t something that just happens. Democracy is something that you do. This does not mean ‘you’ in the abstract, denoting a community or a region or a nation. It means, well, you. You are the citizen. The citizen has the democratic power. If all the citizens stop exercising that power, the power disappears and so democracy is effectively gone.

And in Scotland’s regional authorities (in all but name), large majorities of citizens simply don’t exercise their power. Below that level there is no proper power, no right to have a say in local decisions. The regional authorities are distant and ignored, the really local power isn’t there in the first place.

This leads to the atrophy of those democratic muscles. You quickly come to forget how they work, to assume that it is ‘natural’ that you live in a society where things are done to you rather than done by you. We may be reasonably diligent citizens of our nation but many of us don’t even know how to be a diligent citizen of our communities.

There was much enthusiasm for ‘flatpack democracy’ [LINK: https://www.flatpackdemocracy.co.uk], the case study where a bunch of disgruntled local people (who mostly had never been political activists before) took over their local authority. It was a model it was hoped could be widely replicate – but it wasn’t. It didn’t lead to a ‘local revolution’ across the UK.

Why? I did a joint talk with one of the main instigators of the flatpack democracy movement and the answer is fairly clear. This was a group of mostly professionals who had a good understanding of bureaucracies and how they work. They had a bit of time on their hands and some management experience between them. They had the tools, time and confidence to take on a broken system.

And it was anything but a walk in the park. It was hard, demanding and at times tiring work. Right now in Scotland there are far too many communities which do not have easy access to those human and time resources – and no genuinely local authorities to take over anyway (the flatpack democracy team did not take over an entire region…).

It is why Common Weal rejected the idea of building upwards from existing community councils because they have the same feature – they are regularly in much better shape in affluent, comparatively time-rich communities and can be absent altogether in communities that face multiple deprivation. The ‘democracy muscles’ are not spread evenly across our communities.

All of this is why a crucial part of the Development Councils proposals (generally overlooked) is to establish a ‘Democracy Academy’, a publicly-funded initiative to help to build up the democratic skills and civic confident of the communities that need it most. (It would also be tasked to ‘retrain’ officials and policy-makers to get them into the unaccustomed habit of letting go of power.)

It is hard to state how important this aspect is. We are not a ‘learning nation’; there seems to be a tendency to be suspicion of steps that improve the quality of the civic skills of adults and generations have bemoaned how weak civic education in schools is.

This is a legacy of neoliberalism – it is expected that you be ‘educated’ in why the economic system must be protected and how your personal finances work but to be educated in how democracy works or how to change your community or society is seen as ‘social engineering’.

And it is a very big mistake. None of us can’t benefit from having our democratic skills sharpened and some of us would benefit very greatly from it. And that in the end is perhaps the problem; the class of people who can help communities develop the capacity to take power back for themselves would be the ones who currently have that power. They do not seem inclined to relinquish it.

There is no excuse for Scotland’s enormous democratic deficit. It can be fixed, both in legislation and in community support. When restructuring and reskilling are taken seriously and combined, the reasons given for not having a more powerful ‘local Scotland’ melt away.

Power is important. So is learning how to use it.

3 thoughts on “Something Wrong with Local Democracy”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    There is much in this piece with which I agree, particularly the concluding paragraph and that we have to reorientate the existing councils in the ways suggested.

    However, in identifying correctly the factors which result in many being alienated from democracy, including cynicism, the article itself has a distinctly cynical tone, which I think obscures its message. Secondly, it makes sweeping generalisations about, for example, education in schools, which are, again, grist to the “it’s aw jist a waste o time” mill. I know it is important in seeking to make a persuasive case ‘to start where people are’, but, if you start with a fairly jaundiced view of the kinds of people who actually participate in community democracy, such as community councils (I am a member), then I think you are starting in the wrong place.

    As I said, I agree with your statement about power, but I think that one of the important levers of power is the power to spend and raise money.

    I wish you well in your endeavours, but, please, be nice to people.

    1. Robin McAlpine


      I can’t tell you enough how NOT cynical about this I am. I published the study which kind of broke the story about how bad Scotland’s local democracy is a decade ago (before that the public debate about local government was why we needed LESS of it…). I come from a small town that I know could govern itself well and I’m evangelical about it. Possibly a little jaded by seven year of obfuscation by the Scottish Government which has been running an interminable ‘local governance review’ which it now seems clear is intended to give the impression that something is happening without actually reforming local government. But I am as enthusiastic as ever on local democracy – it’s one of my strongest areas of interest.

      But I spent a year trying to develop a policy paper on local democracy and in doing that I met with a spoke to a lot of the relevant groups. I was personally a little taken aback by how much cynicism there was about local democracy, precisely from the organisations I thought would be most enthusiastic. WE had to do A LOT of work to kind of adapt our proposals to fit round people’s fears about it (fears I personally wasn’t convinced by, but good policy-making isn’t just about what I think…).

      So what I’m trying to do in this article is to explain that there IS a lot of cynicism about local democracy and one of the reasons for that is that a lot of people assume that it will just be more ‘management class capture’ because that seems always to be what happens in Scotland. I’m arguing that it most certainly doesn’t have to be like that – but that it needs communities themselves to have enough capacity and knowledge to make sure that a public sector management class DOES NOT take undue control…


  2. Ian Davidson

    I don’t know whether this was a local thing or a mandatory national exercise, but a year or so before Covid, my local council required all Community Councils to press the self-destruct button and re-constitute themselves. Many of the familiar faces (including two members who studied in detail and publicised every planning application affecting the area) did not stand for re-election and some community councils, including my own, went in to limbo for almost a year due to lack of candidates/interest. The Council eventually got new elections going and a quorum was reached. However, no sooner did the new Council start meeting in late 2019/early 2020 but Covid and lockdown came along. The CC has, as far as I can tell not met physically for over two years and maybe had one or two zoom meetings. During this time, the council has proceeded with dozens of planning proposals including massive housing developments with very little or no public participation. We also have a Development Trust which built a community wind farm, intended to be a long term investment with revenue streams for local projects. However, the wind farm was later sold, on financial advice, due to the changing dynamics of the market. The DT now has several million in cash with a separate charitable trust to give out funds to local projects (I suspect that it will, like many Trusts, find it difficult to disperse the funds as widely as it would wish due to narrow terms of reference etc). Now this is all good news and shows great financial acumen by the Trust members, past and present. But, it is a relatively small group of people in a growing village/town of 6-7 k people so there is, in my view, something of a democratic deficit. I am not in any way questioning the financial management as the projects appear to be well run in accordance with charity/financial law etc. However, from a public participation viewpoint it is disappointing. Its latest purchase was £35k for some land which may, eventually, form part of a new cycling/walking route. Another problem is the dire state of local press; my local newspaper is part of a syndicate and much of the “news” is not actually “local” and certainly not “investigative”. This is all a far cry from the idealism which lead to the creation of Community Councils in the 1975 local government reorganisation. Something has gone badly wrong?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top