Why care about local democracy?

Why should we care about local democracy?  And why should we bother to engage with the Scottish Government’s current ‘Democracy Matters’local governance review?  And what has this got to do with community climate action?

Most of us have become very disengaged from, and often cynical about, local politics and feel very little control over any of the decisions that can have major impacts on day-to-day life in our communities.

The mismatch in scale between the communities of place in which we live, and which we relate to, and the huge size of area covered by our so called ‘Local Authorities’, creates major challenges for all sides. A top-down mindset permeates our whole political culture, from Westminster downwards, such we constantly assume the need to ask for permission, and beg for resources, from a higher authority.  We take it for granted that ‘efficiency’ savings necessarily require standardisation and economies of scale that are unable to take advantage of local knowledge or allow for diverse local circumstances.

This lack of local control over local decisions and resources is a major barrier to the kind of community-led action that could build more resilient communities that actively engage with bringing our zero-carbon future into being.  Transformational change is urgently needed at all levels and communities of place have a particularly important role to play as, at their small scale, they have the potential to rapidly innovate, experiment with and refine solutions to meeting local needs. Such initiatives can then act as inspiration for other communities to quickly replicate or adapt for their own context -so enabling rapid and widespread transformation.

But the fact that there is currently such a lack of any truly local democratic structures in Scotland also gives us an opportunity to re-imagine how things might be. We have an opportunity to go beyond minor adjustments, to prototype new and truly innovative spaces for local dialogue and deliberation. Many community groups are already experimenting with more creative ways of convening, hosting and facilitating discussions to ensure that all voices are heard and conflicting points of view can be considered in a deliberative way that leads to better decision making. But they mostly lack the resources to convene truly inclusive local political spaces and to then implement and act on local decisions and plans.

Can we use the Democracy Matters consultation as an opportunity to reimagine how we do politics locally, to devise locally appropriate ways in which everybody’s voice can be heard, to learn and practice facilitating, hosting and convening skills to ensure that competing local interests and agendas are creatively considered? Could we promote a model of ‘facilitative leadership’in which the role of leader is to mediate and negotiate amongst competing interests and agendas in order to reach agreements and make things happen? Can we create a culture change in which central government is empowered by active and politicized communities and not the other way around? Can we propose how resources might ‘bubble up’ from local communities rather than trickling down from the centre? How can we just get on and start prototyping ways of doing local democracy differently?

Some of these issues are explored in further in this recent article in the Community Development Journal and they form the focus for SCCAN’s upcoming gathering ‘Politics As Though People And Planet Matter‘ in Glasgow on the 3rd and 4th of November. See you there.