Time to rebuild Scottish democracy

50 years of centralisation has not worked, says Commission Report
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy has laid out radical new proposals to re-build Scottish democracy.

Following a year of intensive evidence gathering, the independent Commission has concluded that major new steps to turn around 50 years of centralisation and put local communities back in charge.

In arriving at its recommendations, the Commission has found that:

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  • 50 years of centralisation has not tackled the biggest problems that Scotland faces
  • For a country with Scotland’s relative wealth and strength, the level of inequality today is simply intolerable, and has huge social and financial costs
  • There is a link between the absence of strong local democracy at the moment and the prevalence of inequalities
  • It is communities that empower governments at all levels, not governments that empower people


Launching the report, Cllr David O’Neill, Chair of the Commission, commented:

“The report we publish today is the culmination of an intensive year of work. We have thought long and hard, and engaged widely about the challenges facing our democracy as participation in elections at every level falters, and disaffection with politics grows.

“Be under no illusion. This report is radical, and sets out some big ideas that could really change Scotland. All we ask is that people come to our findings with an open mind.  We understand how difficult it is to throw off the shackles of the current way of looking at democracy. However, the reality is that if we are serious about making Scotland fairer, wealthier and healthier then we need to start putting local communities in control over what matters to them.

“All of our thinking has come down to some fundamental principles that we believe must underpin Scotland’s democratic future:

The principle of sovereignty: democratic power lies with people and communities who give some of that power to governments and local governments, not the other way round

The principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible, and local governance has to be right shape and form for the people and the places it serves  

The principle of transparency: democratic decisions should be clear and understandable to communities, with clean lines of accountability back to communities

The principle of participation: all communities must be able to participate in the decision making that affects their lives and their communities

The principle of spheres not tiers of governance: different parts of the democratic system should have distinct jobs to do that are set out in ‘competencies’, rather than depend on powers being handed down from ’higher’ levels of governance

The principle of interdependency: every part of the democratic system has to support the others, and none can be, or should seek to be, self-contained and self-sufficient

The principle of wellbeing: the purpose of all democracy is to improve opportunities and outcomes for the individuals and communities that empower it

“Over the decades Scotland has become perhaps one of the most centralised countries in Europe.  We have built that view based on an open conversation over the last year with people across Scotland, the UK and Europe, and all of our evidence is publicly available.  It is little wonder that many have lost faith in the democratic system altogether.

“Today, the argument is no longer about whether Scotland is out of step with other modern democracies.  Instead, it is between those who think that this is acceptable, and those who believe that it must change. The question is about what democracy should be like in the years to come.  Regardless of the outcome, are we prepared to let the Referendum perpetuate old ways of thinking? In this report, we argue that it is time to take a much bolder step towards giving communities real choices, and putting the future into their hands.

“This is not just about making democracy stronger, vital as that is.  It is also about improving lives in the best ways possible.  While outcomes have got better for many in Scotland, over the last 50 years the gap between the best and worst off has widened.  For life expectancy alone, in some parts of the country, many can expect to live well into their 80s or beyond.  Only a few streets away, some will be lucky to ever draw a pension.  When I first become a local councillor in 1980, I was shocked that in my own authority the gap was 14 years.  Despite the best efforts of the whole of the public sector, the gap has increased to 24 years.  Quite simply, we are depriving communities of their enormous potential and if we don’t do something soon, inequalities in Scotland will start to overtake many third world countries.

“That is why a major transformation in local democracy should appeal to anyone committed to better and more equal outcomes for people in Scotland. It is going to be a tough journey; after all, everyone who is active in public life today has only ever experienced the current way of working.  The challenge I would make to anyone engaging with this report is that if you agree with us, join us in building a better democracy.  I want one legacy of this Commission to be an alliance of voices that are ambitious together, and that together can push change forward and make it inevitable.  If we sit back we will get the democracy we allow; the current period of constitutional debate and creativity creates a real opportunity to get the democracy our communities deserve.


Notes to Editors

  • The Commission was established in autumn 2013, and operates independently of any organisation.  It brings together key figures from across civic Scotland, senior councillors, and specific experts with a common resolve to understand why local services and local accountability matter
  • The Commission published an interim report  in April setting out how local democracy in Scotland compares to other international countries which can be downloaded here
  • The Commission has based all of its work on an open conversation about Scotland’s democracy and how it might change. This involved over 200 written submissions to its call for evidence from across Scotland and Europe, telephone surveys with 1000 representative Scottish households, 13 evidence panel sessions involving 70 expert witnesses, and 5 public listening events.  All of the evidence, including over 50 webcasts and videos, is available at http://www.localdemocracy.info/start-the-debate/
  • To order a copy of the report by post please click here

Press Enquiries: Linda Bruce t: 0131 474 9228  m: 07968 020 559  e: linda@cosla.gov.uk