THE political structures of Scotland and Norway at the start of the 19th century were seemingly similar regarding the political unions in which they took part. Yet from that time there has been significant divergence both politically and socially.

One nation, Norway, has chosen the path of popular sovereignty with strong dispersed local government, consisting of 356 well-funded local municipalities spread across 11 counties, raising on average some 60% of their revenue locally.  The result is an affluent democratic society with a high level of people participation, confident that local government speaks for them at all levels. The municipalities essentially function as flexible implementers of centrally formulated and decided policies.

Compared to Scotland, Norway has more, smaller, local governments with more responsibilities and powers, a higher percentage of local and own revenues, and some ability to make fiscal choices eg, on property taxes. Norway has greater budgets per person, higher voter turnout in local elections and greater female participation in local government.

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Local government is a major employer and investor in local communities. For example, in 2012, the budget per person in Norway was some £5920 (Eigersund Municipality with 14,000 inhabitants) whereas in Scotland the budget per person was £2750 (Highland Authority with 219,000 inhabitants). Scotland’s public services are grossly underfunded, poorly equipped, and generally understaffed. The funding situation in Scotland has deteriorated further since then.

Land tenure has also diverged. In Norway most urban land is still owned at local family or community levels. In contrast, major areas of rural Scotland are owned by a small number of mainly non-resident individuals or companies.

Scotland, embedded into the Union with Great Britain was and still is riven by adversarial politics, social inequalities and its national aspirations restricted.

Before 1929, Scotland although directly governed by Westminster, had strong effective local government operating through a system comprising some 1112 burghs, counties and parishes. The 1973 Local Government Act created regions, districts and community councils, abolishing burghs. Then in 1996 the regions and districts were replaced by unitary authorities.

Since 1999, Scotland has been governed under a system of subsidiarity where specified powers are devolved by Westminster to the partially re-instated Scottish Parliament.  The intent, that the Scottish Parliament continues the process by devolving a proportion of its powers to a reformed system of autonomous local government, has failed to be implemented by any of the administrations at Holyrood. Local government in Scotland, in the form of 32 unitary authorities, is, in large parts of the country, not “local” and it is about administration – as an executive arm of central government – rather than about democratic decision-making.

Community councils are, by and large, toothless and powerless and unlike parish councils in England, have no fundraising powers so are even more poorly resourced than local authorities. In some areas they have even become politicised.

The impacts of the devolved system include a loss of national confidence and identity, lack of joined-up thinking and governance, increased costs of governance, local government powers vested in quangos, loss of local employment, remote communities feel excluded, negative impacts on economic development, decreasing knowledge and understanding of local problems in the “centre”, and increased out-migration.

A radical transfer of power from central government is essential if we are to rebuild confidence in Scotland’s democracy and achieve a form of democratic governance beneficial for most Scots. There needs to be a move away from the centralised “Holyrood knows best” attitude to a form of distributed government where people can influence services to meet local requirements.  The current situation cannot go on and as outlined in Article 12 of our model constitution at www.constitutionforscotland.scot action requires to be taken to effect a dispersed system of governance to redress the undemocratic trend under the current Scottish Government. Such positive reform would also create public confidence in the ability of Holyrood to initiate innovative and significant legislation.

Under devolution, it is not Westminster but the Scottish Government that is preventing a shared, dispersed system of autonomous democratic power throughout Scotland, rather than hoarding it to Edinburgh.

Norway has 356 ‘wellfunded’ local municipalities, some with a budget per capita of more than £5000

Regrettably, under our current system, both tiers of government in Scotland have come under political party control with the result that their separate functions are being manipulated to suit party politics rather than “customer” outcomes. The result is inefficient public services, due to a lack of local knowledge, plus a loss of credibility and trust in politicians generally.

A clear separation of function is required, with local government empowered as flexible implementers of centrally formulated policies and standards.

There is no need to wait for independence as the return of local powers could reduce the constraints regarding local revenue raising, provide additional alternative funding, provide greater scope for innovation and creativity, reinstate smaller and truly local government councils. We could empower local democracy, local communities, community organisations and encourage a culture where citizens could beneficially influence and participate in local decision-making.

So far only the Scottish Greens appear to recognise the need to reform local government.

lRecommended reading: Northern Neighbours by John Bryden, Ottar Brox and Lesley Riddoch lwww.constitutionforscotland.scot is a registered Scottish charity with the aim of advancing participative democracy within the community of Scotland. You can join more than 15,500 visitors, read more than 1000 comments, and participate in preparing a Scottish Constitution. Join in and have your say in how you think an independent Scotland should be governed.

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