Fairer Scotland event for CCs: questions answered

The Scottish Government has responded to questions raised by CC members at a fairly recent Fairer Scotland event. Click the thumbnail to download the full PDF.

Fairer Scotland - Community Council Event - Q & A Report - Final

If you have any queries about the responses, it would be best to contact Kristoffer Boesen or Lynn Sharp of the Improvement Service (IS). In the meantime, I’m very pleased to see mentions of the work by Peter Cruickshank and me, specifically

This shows some of the impact of our work. I can’t quantify this impact yet: I don’t have analytics for the location finder, and it’s too early to say whether delegates and their peers are implementing the ideas raised in the workshops.

The rest of this post is purely my personal opinion, and has nothing to do with Napier or any of my colleagues there. If there is anything factually incorrect, I will happily amend it.

One of the issues discussed in the response is how the Scottish Government (SG) can support CCs. For me, this set of responses, the Fairer Scotland event, the digital engagement workshops, the Improvement Service project and similar demonstrate that SG is taking hyperlocal democracy seriously. (For the record, IS != SG.)

However, SG cannot do anything directly to CCs, even if that were desirable. The 1973 and 1994 Local Government (Scotland) Acts make it clear that CC are defined by Local Authorities.

  • Firstly, while there may be some issues between CCs and their parent LAs, and the current system doesn’t put local decisions first, it would be a bad thing™ if the SG meddled with LAs’ autonomy.
  • Secondly, there are enough accusations of Scotland being a centralist one-party state already.
  • Thirdly, there are other ways for central and local government to work with each other. One of these is the system of location directors: senior civil servants working with each LA on high-level items such as their single outcome agreements (SOAs) which guide LAs’ work towards improving matters locally. [Time to pause for a few mini-rants:
    • I have very strong reservations about the term ‘location director’ because, as far as I know, the point is not for SG to direct LAs. It’s to create partnerships and give LAs information on and access to anything relevant that SG is doing.
    • I hate the term ‘single outcome agreement’: they are single agreements between several parties (LA, NHS, police, other emergency services etc) about multiple desired outcomes and ways to try to achieve them. The term should be ‘multiple outcomes agreement’, ‘local outcomes agreement’, ‘single agreement about outcomes’ or any other term that actually, accurately describes these agreements.
    • There is no guarantee that SOAs will inexorably lead to improvements.
    • I’m also slightly dubious about how well local and community bodies are wired into SOAs.
  • Fourthly, 60% of LAs’ income is from the Scottish Government, according to Audit Scotland. (Council Tax supplies around 12%, down from 15% in 2011.) Should the SG wish to rein in LAs, it might try to tighten the purse-strings. [I am not saying that this happens or that it is likely to happen, merely that if the Cabinet Secretary for Finance underwent a drastic personality/policy change, and that this was not controlled by his seniorscolleagues and civil servants, then he might in theory try to influence LA spending.] However, this would be a stupidly blunt instrument: how would LAs know which of their activities were under fire?

So it is well-nigh impossible for SG to directly influence CCs without major changes in policy and/or legislation. However, what it can do, and is doing, is to work indirectly. It supports the Improvement Service (see answers 51 to 55), which is associated with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, in its work for CCs. It has contributed to the digital engagement workshops by funding them, by showing how CCs can take advantage of the Community Empowerment Act, and by being present so CCs members can talk directly with relevant civil servants. It is trying to listen, and within the limits discussed above, do what it can to heed CCs’ opinions.

I do not claim that everything is perfect. For a start, it’s almost crazy to describe CCs as hyperlocal government. They don’t govern anything, mostly they don’t provide services, no direct taxes are levied for such putative service provision, and they often claim that they are ignored by LAs and other, higher tiers of government and administration. (I’ve seen a couple of examples of central government over-riding CCs’ opinions on planning but I don’t have enough data to have an informed opinion.)

Secondly, they can be swept away by their sponsoring LAs, just as central government changed Scotland’s local government systems in 1975 and 1996. Local and hyperlocal governments do not donate powers to central government. Instead, central government defines their powers, duties and budgets.

Nor am I naively shouting all power to the soviets! CC members are part-time volunteers. The beauty of this, for me, is that they bring experience from all sorts of careers, rather than being career politicians. However, this means they may not know how to handle the public exposure and other challenges associated with power. And what are we to do about the 200 or so CCs that don’t exist?

So, for me, it’s about evolution, partnership and power-sharing, so that whoever has power uses it to try (remember, there are no guarantees) to do things for their fellow citizens.

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