Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Day they Shrunk the Town Hall

I nearly spluttered over my porridge when I saw the headline on 'Scotland on Sunday' proclaiming 'Scottish Local Authorities Face the Axe'. Was this the latest wheeze of Johann Lamont's Cuts Commission? No there was a picture of Scotland's Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill and quotes from a Q&A at the International Policing Conference which was held in Edinburgh last week.

Against the backdrop of the creation of a single Scottish Police Force and a question on whether with that in mind it was right to have 32 councils Mr MacAskill had said “The status quo is not tenable. It was not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life,” he did go on to say that "not everything has to be a single service." 

To be fair others have raised this issue - most recently Reform Scotland proposed cutting the number of Councils to 19. However Kenny MacAskill is a senior Scottish Cabinet figure and therefore the statement carries more weight. Could this be the direction of travel of the Scottish Government? Would this be the SNP vision of local democracy in an Independent Scotland?

You could say calm down it was only an off the cuff answer made in front of police officers. On the other hand it could be interpreted as laying down a marker to local government across Scotland to reform or die. In the current climate of budget squeeze its much more likely to be the latter.

As I expected when I read the story there was a quick response from the Scottish Government saying it has "no plans to merge local authorities" however it was in favour of "closer service integration". That last bit is about shared services where progress has been glacial.

Local government had its last structural reform in the mid 1990s when Regional Councils where merged with District Councils to form the current unitary system. Many councils are only just emerging from the aftermath of that re-organisation so it is not something that there is generally a huge appetite for. It may also, to some extent, explain the lack of progress on sharing of services between councils. No one wants to give up overall control, power and budget. However there is also the elephant in the room - budget cuts. There are more deep cuts to come as local government budgets shrink while demands and costs grow.

Then there is the conundrum of the low turnout at local government elections. In some ways its a paradox - the level of government that actually delivers many of the services that we use in our daily life attracts paltry interest from voters when it comes to the ballot box.

Merging councils would undoubtedly make councils more remote from those they serve so it would seem unlikely that such a reconfiguration would solve the public engagement issue. The likelihood is that it would make matters worse. A bigger council would be much more likely to make decisions on a strategic level rather than a local level thereby lessening the ability of locals including local councillors to influence decisions in favour of localities.

So does it have to happen? Well, remember there are no plans. But its there and there should be room for debate on the issue. What does Scotland need in terms of local governance under a devolved Parliament? And what would it need in an Independent Scotland?

My friend Councillor Dave Berry put forward his ideas on his blog. Essentially a two tier structure of regions or city regions with lean burgh councils beneath. Not a bad stab at a thorny issue. The Jimmy Reid Foundation produced a report earlier this year which made a strong case that Scotland is operating the least democratic system of local governance in Europe. Commentator Lesley Riddoch has already responded to Kenny MacAskill's comments here. It is also timely that Mackay Hannah are holding a conference in April entitled 'Re-imagining Scottish Local Government: Councils and the Future of Scotland'.

I said in a post earlier this year that a debate should be had and I maintain that position. However that does not mean I'm in favour of centralising local power in larger councils. The debate I want to see is how do we democratise what we have? Do we need to make any changes to the current structure? How do we make the services provided more accountable to local people and how do we give local communities a stronger say in delivery of services and on the budget priorities in their area? 

As a quick example take Edinburgh where I was a councillor for twelve years. Would I want to see that council made bigger? Answer - no. Would I want to see decisions being taken with more involvement of the communities of Edinburgh? Answer - yes. Edinburgh already has the structure in the Neighbourhood Partnerships but these are advisory and with relatively little budget to decide locally. However that could be changed giving the partnerships more clout and as the local community councils are involved as partners perhaps invigorating them (in all those years as a Leith councillor not one of the Leith Community Councils has had an election as they haven't had enough nominations to trigger one) by giving them a strong say in how budgets are spent in the local area. Leith Neighbourhood Partnership has already used participative methods to decide Community Grant spending.  Edinburgh has also taken the recent step of opening out the Council's budget process though it is too early to tell how that will be received. These are small but significant steps in opening up the closed circuit of council processes to the public they serve. Could it go further and have something like Leith or Portobello burgh councils sitting beneath the overarching City Council with the former delivering the local services and the latter the strategic priorities of the City?

I think some debate on devolution of power and budget might deliver something that is responsive to communities and might just work. Perhaps its a spanner that local government needs and not the axe.

Monday, 26 November 2012

A rebirth of Scottish Radicalism?

On the 24th November 2012 the inaugural 'Radical Independence Conference' was held in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Glasgow. It brought together various strands of radicalism from across Scotland with 800 people booking tickets for the event.

The campaign for Scottish Independence has been more or less the domain of the Scottish National Party. True the Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Greens have occupied that territory too along with others like independent MSP Margo MacDonald. But by and large the monopoly on the independence franchise has been held securely by the SNP.

It seems though that the Independence referendum and the broad based Yes Scotland campaign has opened the door to new interpretations of the independence sang. The Greens re-examined their support for independence at their recent conference before swinging four-square behind the Yes campaign. They rightly saw the huge opportunity for a new and radical future for Scotland that independence offers. Others have followed suit and many roads led to Glasgow and the Radical Independence Conference on Saturday.

I arrived at Edinburgh's Waverley station to travel through by train and met up with the SSP's Colin Fox and a couple of his friends. We boarded the train where we met  George Kerevan, Scotsman columnist and former International Marxist. George had written a pre-conference 'manifesto' which set out his stall with some radical suggestions for a future Scotland. It made for lively discussion on the way through on the economy, Scottish newspapers, Spanish politics and the Catalan elections. It set the scene for the day in a way. The only thing that was missing on the journey through was the youthfulness of many of the delegates that became apparent when we arrived.

Who was there? Well in some ways it was a case of who wasn't there. They ranged from veterans of the independence struggle to student campaigners through environmental campaigners, feminists, disability rights activists, housing campaigners, anti-racists, community activists, international socialists of all stripes and a cross section of the left green radical commentariat.  Also present was an impressive range of international guests from campaigns in France, Greece, Quebec, the Basque country and Palestine.

Where does it go? Links have been made, barriers broken down, alliances and coalitions have been formed. All of these people from a very wide spectrum of 'radical Scotland' came together, they discussed, they listened, they exchanged views, debated ideas and they want to continue the dialogue and match it with action. It was quite a feat to get such a wide section of the radical left together in one place and that they are rallied around the hope for radical change offered by the Independence Referendum.

It was, I believe, significant not least in having gathered together such a large attendance of people looking for change and the chance to build a new Scotland steering a course away from business as usual and towards a Scotland that is greener, fairer, more democratic and egalitarian. It is also significant that Alex Salmond sent a message of support and that former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart gently stressed that the referendum conference would not be happening at all if it were not for the success of the SNP and the First Minister in getting us this far.

There has already been much written on the event and its aftermath had you can read more via these commentators,

Pat Kane

George Kevevan

Robin McAlpine

Colin Fox

Gregor Gall

Lesley Riddoch

National Collective

Aidan Kerr

Plaid Wrecsam

James Maxwell

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

We are the Parade!

Review of Sabrina Chap live at Elvis Shakespeare Leith Walk 17 November 2012

I am  friends with second-hand record and book shop Elvis Shakespeare and last week I received a Facebook invite to one of their periodic free gigs. The shop has been running free shows for a while now - the first was Billy Childish and they have also seen local bands Blueflint, The Last Battle and the Stormy Seas play in their intimate space on a Saturday afternoon.

I hadn't heard of the act for this week an American singer called Sabrina Chap so checked her out her website and had a listen to music from her two albums Oompa! and We Are the Parade. I liked what I heard and decided I would pop in and see what she was like live.

Come Saturday afternoon I joined a small group of people to listen to Sabrina and despite a cold - the result, she said, of a thing they have in Glasgow called whisky. Accompanied by her electric piano, a plastic kazoo, foot stomping and even some audience participation she delighted us for over half an hour. The songs are a quirky jazzy vaudevillian mix with wry well observed lyrics. Opening with When I Grow Up, I'm Gonna Dance and working through a selection of songs from both albums plus one new song she entertained us punctuating the songs with humour filled stories stories from her life. She introduced We Are the Parade as a protest song but one that did not protest injustice instead celebrating equality and diversity.

All of a sudden it was over and time for some brief conversations and the selling of some cd's then off into the rest of Saturday afternoon. She said she'll be back in Edinburgh hopefully during the festival and in more of a cabaret setting. I'm making a note to be there.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Let your 'Yes' be YES!

Now that the Scottish Government have made clear their preferred referendum question "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"  there have been cries of 'foul' from the no campaign 'Better Together'. 
Seemingly the use of the phrase 'do you agree' is a trick and voters will find it difficult to vote no in the referendum. I have to say I never knew it would be so easy to win the Independence Referendum! I am also surprised that people could fail to to understand such a straightforward question and accidentally vote 'Yes' when that is not their intention. According to head honcho of the 'Better Together' campaign Alastair Darling MP the SNP have rigged the referendum. Gosh are people that lacking in intelligence Alastair? Are people who don't want Scotland to be independent really going to vote 'Yes' when presented with the question "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" 
Obviously I am campaigning for a 'Yes' vote and a 'Yes' victory so it could be levelled at me that I would support the question as it is wouldn't I? Yes I would because I put more faith in the voters basic intelligence to know whether they agree or disagree with the question. It is simple and easily digested.
In way of contrast here's what the good voters of Quebec were presented with at their two referendums on Quebec sovereignty or independence. 

1980 : "The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?"   


1995 : Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?.

These two questions are neither clear nor that easy to understand. Both require a background paper (I've provided a link to wikipedia for the bill and agreement from 1995). But it was the shorter of the two that came closest to winning. In 1980 the result was 59% No against 40% Yes and in 1995 Quebeckers ran the vote much closer 50.5% No to 49.4% Yes.

Whatever the final question is on Scottish Independence my 'Yes' will be 'Yes'. 

Note: The Electoral Commission's consultation on the referendum question closes on 30 November. Details here