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Distrust is holding back local democracy

This opinion piece is over 8 years old

Calum Irving sat on the Commissioning on Strengthening Local Democracy and believes institutions must learn to trust each other to govern effectively locally

Calum Irving
Calum Irving

The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy has launched its final report. I’ve actively contributed to it, so am partly responsible. Members of Voluntary Action Scotland also contributed too, as did people from across the third sector interested in putting people at the heart of democracy.

Distrust has sadly grown between local government, national government, the third sector, communities and business in a variety of combinations

There is a risk that the report stirs up apathy and cynicism, which has a tendency to happen when radical change is suggested, but this would be disappointing. The referendum has opened up dialogue about how we govern ourselves in a way I haven’t seen before. The devolution referendum lead to similar debates and as a student I stood at trestle tables on street corners in Edinburgh arguing with (rather than convincing) anybody who’d give me the time of day. However, what was different was that back then we were arguing for devolution.

I whole heartedly supported devolution but in the years that have followed it's become clear that we continuously work in a paradigm that says “I’ll let you in….but don’t rock the boat too much….and actually I’m in charge anyway.” In other words it’s no longer good enough to keep ceding bits of power – the results are clear for all to see, intolerable inequalities, economics that don’t work for enough of us anymore and a near full-scale departure of the citizen from decision making.

The report itself goes to the heart of the matter. It’s now time to seed power instead of ceding power. You might ask why has this not happened already? The report identified a centralising mind-set and much in legislation and practice that has lead to this failure, but what it all amounts to is that we have lost the ability to trust. Distrust has sadly grown between local government, national government, the third sector, communities and business in a variety of combinations.

What the report at least starts to do is set out how that trust can be rebuilt and nurtured. For example myself and many others argued strongly for the place of deliberation in democracy – the time, space and support for people to chew over the issues and come up with the solutions, and in many cases lead the solutions. They do it now – but in piecemeal examples and least of all where it’s needed most. One of the problems is that this king of participative democracy seems fanciful and naïve until you’ve seen it work in practice. I was lucky, I got to take part in citizens juries around the North West of England. It was inspiring to see a different form of policy making and community action take shape. Unfortunately, it wasn’t built into the system, it was seen as experimental, and although successful not how things are done.

That’s what has to change. The commissioners aren’t naïve, we all know that legislation, more experiments in re-shaping democracy and structural change won’t be enough - there’ll be many who fear change and dig their heals in. However, this is the start of a movement. For my part at Voluntary Action Scotland I will ensure our network can chew it over at our conference and – I hope – support its findings in whatever way we collectively can.



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