Community Empowerment and Local Democracy

A democratic constitution not supported by democratic institutions in detail, but confined to the central government, not only is not political freedom, but often creates a spirit precisely the reverse’. (John Stuart Mill, Political Economy)

 “We do not learn to read or write, to ride or swim, by being merely told how to do it, but by doing it, so it is only by practising popular government on a limited scale, that people will ever learn how to exercise it on a larger” (John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Culture)

A democratic deficit?

We hardly seem to have lacked opportunities to take part in democracy in Scotland recently, with two referendums and four elections at various levels of government in less than four years.  Yet the public mood is often unenthusiastic about democratic institutions and their relevance. The Brexit vote seems to reflect disillusionment with their complexity, remoteness and failure to deliver (even in Scotland – after all 38% of Scots voted for Brexit in spite of limited support for it from any of the main parties).  Arguably, disempowering economic forces and policies are largely to blame. As Trevor Davies says in these essays “To families and communities that have lost control over their own destinies, ‘take back control’ is the most potent of political calls”. But it seems likely that a lack of practical personal experience or understanding of the efficacy of democratic institutions is also a factor.

In this paper I will argue that we need ‘popular government on a limited scale’ and ‘democratic institutions in detail’ as Mill argues, as well as the correct policy and constitutional solutions at Scottish, UK and European levels. Crucially, this cannot work successfully if it is confined to strengthening community action whilst centralising control of services increasingly at a Scottish level, as the SNP government sometimes seems to believe. But nor can it work simply by restoring traditional models of local government, without action to strengthen communities directly, as a certain strand in Labour and Fabian thinking might suggest.

Stereotypical ‘Fabian’ responses, proposing research, reorganisation of institutions and legislation, are not enough (and have never in fact been the sole focus of the Society).  Ed Miliband explained in a Fabian speech a few years ago:

“[two] strands of the British Labour tradition have proved particularly influential. The first was the idea of socialism as a kind of missionary work … this view is most obviously associated with the early Fabians …. The alternative strand, represented by the co-operative movement and the early trade unions, saw Labour as a grass-roots, democratic movement to enable people to lead the most fulfilling lives. … The bureaucratic state and the overbearing market will never meet our real ambition …, that each citizen can be liberated to have the real freedom to shape their own lives …  we need to draw on that other tradition based on mutualism, localism and the common bonds of solidarity”

Surely, you might say, Scotland has done much to combat these trends? The Scottish Parliament, after almost 20 years, has brought decision making a little closer to people.  According to the 2016 Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 59% of the Scottish population thinks that the Scottish Parliament gives ordinary people more say in how Scotland is governed. And community empowerment has been a significant stated objective of successive Scottish governments.

In the same survey 65% trusted the Scottish Government “to work in Scotland’s best interests” always or most of the time (compared to 25% for the UK Government).  But here a government survey has asked people for responses to a nationalist slogan.  Only 40% had a similar level of trust in the Scottish Government “to make fair decisions” (a mere 18% for the UK government).

People were also asked about trust in the ‘fairness’ of their local council – only 32% had a similar level.  But our units of local government are large and people elect fewer representatives per head than in almost any European country. At the very local level we have only Community Councils, which have legal recognition but no administrative responsibilities. Other social changes may compound people’s lack of practical engagement, notably the decline in Trade Union membership (from 39% of the Scottish workforce in 1995 to 29% in 2016).

Yet 68% of people in Scotland report that ‘in the last few years’ they have done at least one activity to register what they thought about an issue (according to the 2015 attitudes survey). This had increased markedly from 55% in 2009.

In addition, 69%  say that they belong to their local area either ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, and 46% have demonstrated this practically: they  have either volunteered at (or helped to  set up) a local community organisation, helped to organise an event, or tried to stop something happening in their local area. 35% have volunteered or helped out at a local community organisation or charity.  61% agree that ‘…people in this area are able to find ways to improve things around here when they want to ‟ – not a directly comparable response, but possibly suggesting levels of trust greater than those in elected governments, apart from trust in the ‘Scottishness’ of the Scottish Government.

We need to sort out our relationship with and understanding of democracy. Some of those involved on the ‘Yes’ side of the 2014 independence referendum  believe that they experienced a unique degree of popular mobilisation and participation.  Yet of the 68% in the Social Attitudes survey who reported taking actions to register their views, the proportion who said that at least one action was connected with the independence referendum was 31% (i.e. around 21% of the population as a whole):  a significant level of involvement, perhaps, but clearly a minority of all reasons for engagement.

The high levels of voter turnout and perhaps citizen engagement in the 2014 Scottish referendum are a poor guide  to longer term prospects for engagement – people were aware that they had a direct role in an ‘existential’ choice, and were assured that this was a ‘once in a generation’ event. The higher level of turnout in England than Scotland for the Brexit referendum suggests that it may have had some similar mobilising effects there (and perhaps that they can be negative in their consequences).

But the evidence suggests that the majority of the population do have an appetite for engagement more generally and often see their local communities as an effective locus for this.

One recent Labour response to the difficulty of mobilising the electorate has been to encourage party involvement in community action. For example in 2013 the UK party General Secretary announced

“We have put our faith in community organising …. People coming together to oppose loan sharks and sky-high interest rates, to protect their post offices, fire stations and hospitals”.

The emphasis seems to be on stimulating or participating in reactive campaigns –certainly sometimes the origin of longer term community development – rather than on a role for the party and its members as long term participants in the life of communities.

A Scottish model?

Everybody likes communities. Government strategy papers (from local to European) are peppered with the word ‘community’. But there is some truth in the idea that a distinctive ‘Scottish model’ of policy has been developed by successive administrations, one which emphasises the role of strengthening and engaging communities at many levels (including both neighbourhood communities and other groups brought together by common interest or experience of discrimination). Meeting overseas visitors interested in community development in recent years, I have often heard that we have many positive experiences to offer[7] . This has occurred largely during a period when UK government has been less supportive of work in England (with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative proving largely abortive[8], apart perhaps from work on the training of local Community Organisers and some enhanced rights for communities in the Localism Act 2011).

In this essay, I talk mainly about democracy and active citizenship. But much of the impetus for trying to sustain community development approaches in Scotland has come from public service reform and a concern for better ways of achieving social and economic outcomes. The Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services focused on the need for action now to prevent future pressures on services. One of the objectives it set out was:

“Public services are built around people and communities, their needs, aspirations, capacities and skills, and work to build up their autonomy and resilience.”

However implementation of the Christie principles has been disappointing. Given the pressures on existing public services, the extent to which resources have been found for items of expenditure with a specific preventative impact has been limited, let alone wider investment in building more resilient communities or more effectively ‘co-produced’ services.

Still, there has been a climate of innovation. Legislation from the Lib/Lab coalition’s 2003 Land Reform Act to the latest 2016 Act has greatly extended the potential for communities to acquire or manage land, held  both privately and publicly (to different extents).   The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 also extended the law in that area. In addition, it gave new rights to community groups to ask for involvement in decision making, which are only now coming into force. This may prove to be a driver for change, though to take full advantage many communities will need support to organise.

Recently, much Scottish Government attention has focused on the encouragement of Participatory Budgeting or ‘Community Choices’ funding. A sceptical view would be that this is a relatively cheap but high profile measure that is easier to implement than more strategic changes. But it does have the potential to bring communities together to learn about others’ needs and projects, and to give people precisely the kind of practical experience of decision-making that I am arguing is essential.

A key factor will be the future direction of Community Planning. Successive administrations have reviewed this and decided that they do need a system which brings together public services and other sectors together at local authority level to agree action to achieve common outcomes, and that they should try to strengthen it. This is in spite of Accounts Commission warnings that

“Progress on community planning has not yet achieved the major change needed to fulfil its potential to reduce inequalities and put communities at the heart of delivering public services”.

In the past ‘Community Planning’ has not always been an accurate description, with limited community involvement in the process.  The 2015 Act places new obligations on Partnerships to make plans at locality level and to promote community engagement.

An emphasis on involving and empowering communities can be found in many other aspects of policy. Support has been offered to communities to develop sustainable energy and combat climate change. A current government consultation on land use planning suggests a new right for community bodies to create their own ‘place plans’ which would “have the potential to form part of the statutory development plan.” There is some recognition of community-led approaches to health improvement, though only a tiny proportion of the health budget is devoted to these. In spite of encouraging rhetoric from the former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns, the NHS has still to significantly widen its vision of what community activity it can support.

Scotland has some significant assets, including a social enterprise sector with a clear view of its distinctive role, and a wide range of community organisations, including strong Development Trust and community-owned social housing movements.  There is support, limited but more than is available in England, for organisational infrastructure and for the development of skilled professional work in what is recognised in Scotland as Community Learning and Development:  emphasising the common values of youth workers, community educators and community workers.

But there are major challenges. It is difficult to get a clear overview, but it appears that, in spite of the positive policy environment, resources for community development are declining in both local authority and voluntary sectors.  Nationally and locally there is often no clear overview of when intervention is needed, both to catalyse initial community action and to strengthen and develop it, and of where such support is to come from.

 ‘Local’ vs ‘Community’

I shall return to the need for a clearer national strategic overview. First I want to draw attention both to the confusion that often exists in political thinking between different levels of ‘local’ engagement, and to the fact that this could be about to lead to political conflict in an area where this has been relatively absent.

The developments discussed so far have largely not been a battleground between Labour and SNP, or indeed other parties.  Labour’s efforts during the passage of the Community Empowerment Act were largely devoted to seeking to strengthen it, with some successes in committee. Glasgow Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 local elections, for example, no doubt similar to others elsewhere, showed a desire to enhance localised decision making (including Participatory Budgeting), promising amongst other things to:

  • “Build on our successful community budgeting pilots ….
  • Devolve choice, responsibility and budgets to local people for their local services
  • Give local residents the ability to help design how local services including cleansing, roads, refuse, parks, and leisure are provided …
  • Create a bespoke ward action plan with local communities …”

Strong, active communities are not the same thing as local government, however localised that could be. They are often conflated in political rhetoric. For example the 2017 UK Labour manifesto clearly does this: “Labour believes in devolving power to local communities but that requires the necessary funding follows.  You cannot empower local government if you impoverish it.”

I would argue that we need to work at several levels to strengthen involvement – communities of place and of interest, localised decision making forums, area-wide local government etc.; and to be clear that we are doing all of these things.

The waters have already been muddied by the SNP government’s combination of localising rhetoric with centralising reforms of e.g. of the Police, Fire and Rescue and Children’s Panels, the  potential merging of enterprise agencies and funding councils and the proposed regional pooling of much school funding. (The ‘localising’ aspect of the current school proposals appears to be to devolve decisions entirely to head teachers, not to any forum with parent, pupil, staff or community involvement).  According to Brian Wilson “Since 2008, a guiding objective of ministers has been to create as many organisations as possible to which the word ‘Scotland’ could be attached.”

But matters may be brought to a head by the forthcoming Local Democracy Bill (or similar title) on which preparatory work is under way. According to the Scottish Government’s Programme 2016-17  “In this Parliament we will also introduce a Bill that will decentralise local authority functions, budgets and democratise oversight to local communities”.

Quite explicitly, this is going to be about taking powers away from existing councils, not making them more effective. Nor apparently would it impose any new obligations on other parts of the public sector (although the Community Empowerment Act did that). According to the ‘National’, “ministers are keen to stop money being lost in the black hole of ‘moribund ’local government finance” and the government “do not want to axe or merge councils but want to find ways of stripping power and control over money from local authorities and giving them to local communities”

The underlying attitudes have been clearly demonstrated by former Local Government Minister Marco Biagi (one of the more thoughtful recent SNP Ministers, now no longer an MSP). Writing for Holyrood Magazine, he says “Our democracy is more national than local, and staying that way”.  By the end of his ministerial tenure he had become persuaded that a model which would turn local authorities into “something resembling federations” could be the way forward. This reveals exactly the kind of wish for democracy ‘confined to the central government’ against which JS Mill warned, presumably fuelled by a faith in the supposedly uniquely democratic character of voting for ‘Scottish’ institutions.  Biagi explicitly argues for a combined programme of centralisation and localism: “In parallel to encouraging delivery of certain big services at a regional level, like city deals or by joint arrangements with national and local dimensions, like education and policing, key functions that define quality of life and quality of a community need to be dealt with by those communities“.

There is therefore an impending need to defend and empower local government. Whether or not the existing units are the right ones, the principle of an intermediate layer of democratic decision making, between a centralised Scottish state and local forums which deal only with matters with no ‘national dimensions’, is an important one for citizenship;. Additionally, many though not all of our councils give an active role to units – cities, historic counties etc. that are significant parts of people’s identities. But a knee-jerk ‘defend local government’ response is unlikely to be effective. Levels of trust are low, as we have seen.  Ways have to be found to give people more accessible and guaranteed participation in decision making in their communities, without further weakening existing local government, and to give them a role in decisions that are currently made by central government or Quangos.

 Possible responses

There are road maps available. Much more attention could be paid to the recommendations made three years ago in the report of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy. This cross party commission, established by COSLA with outside participation, made recommendations both of principles and practical actions that address many of the issues we have been discussing (though later we shall suggest that they need to be complemented by active support for community development). The recommendations were enthusiastically promoted at the time by the Commission’s Labour chair Councillor David O’Neill, but have now apparently been lost sight of.

‘SEVEN PRINCIPLES FOR STRONGER DEMOCRACY IN SCOTLAND’(Commission for Strengthening Local Democracy, 2014) ·       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


Local democracy

The Commission made recommendations that were about strengthening the role of councils, for example

“In line with elsewhere in Europe, local taxation should fund at least 50% of local income in the future”.

But it also addressed the issues of decentralising central decisions:

“Scottish Ministers should be placed under a legal duty to ‘local proof’ all legislation through a subsidiarity test”

and of increasing more local participation:

“Local government in Scotland, and  all other public authorities providing  local services, [should be]  given a clear  duty in law to support and resource  community participation in all local  decision making about tax, spend  and service delivery priorities.   This general duty [should be] supplemented by a specific duty to ensure that communities that are likely to face barriers to participating are supported and resourced to do so”.

“Democratic innovations such as deliberative assemblies, participatory budgeting and citizen scrutiny of public services should also become the standards by which this [duty] is delivered in Scotland”.

Most controversially the Commission recommended “more, smaller scale, local governments”, with shared service delivery arrangements where appropriate, which is probably why its findings have been kicked into the political long grass. Major structural changes are costly and take attention away from delivery for long periods, as past local government reorganisations and possibly the current process of health and social care integration have shown.

We will have to engage with the proposals that the Scottish Government seems likely to bring forward for localisation of more council decision making – Biagi for example, in the article quoted, says that legislation could bestow “additional responsibilities” on subcommittees of councils, allowing them to “assume the role and title of town councils”. That might work in some areas of the country. But it will be vital to propose ways of combining these with a more general principle of ‘subsidiarity’ across government, with guarantees of funding distribution based on need, and with a continuing responsibility of elected local councils for regeneration, pursuing social justice and promoting local decision making. There may well be majorities in the Parliament for such amendments.

Some Scottish Government at some point is also going to have to grasp the nettle of reforming Community Councils, which they have repeatedly avoided. Perhaps this could be done by offering the option of more power to take action to deliver local outcomes (and promote community development) to a wider range of types of community organisation, including Community Councils, rather than trying to find a few formal responsibilities that can be automatically given to one local ‘tier’ of government, on the model of English Parish Councils.

Importantly, the Commission did not come up with a blueprint for the reorganisation of local government. Instead it proposed a longer term “participative, deliberative process … focused on building momentum and consensus, not just analysis”. They asked for “a national conversation throughout communities across Scotland   about the future shape and   character of our democracy” a “review jointly commissioned by Scottish Government and local government, and … resourced to operate on a participative and deliberative basis”. This idea, effectively of a popular convention, is still worth pursuing.

Community empowerment and community development

As the ‘Local Democracy’ Commission recognised, “strong democracy is both participatory and representative. The debate must go well beyond arguing about the powers of local government in the traditional sense. “Genuinely strong local democracy requires many voices, and different and exciting new forms of expression”.  There is a growing interest worldwide in new forms of deliberative assemblies and panels – used for constitutional reviews in Iceland, parts of Canada etc. The work of the Citizen Participation Network, hosted at the University of Edinburgh, has widened understanding that innovation strengthens democracy and does not undermine it.

There is potential now available to make positive use of the Community Empowerment Act,  for example:

  • by supporting communities to use their right to request participation in delivering outcomes in positive ways (rather than waiting for conflicts to develop);
  • by working with communities to identify buildings and assets where community ownership or management is a viable option, not only attempt to unload failed assets;
  • by directing resources to ensuring that under-represented groups and areas take advantage of their rights;
  • by taking seriously the duty of Community Planning partners collectively to support engagement – not only in their own CP forums.

Use of specific statutory powers and duties cannot in itself create stronger communities, but it can bring communities together and unleash wider action and involvement. ‘Communities of interest’, as well as neighbourhood groups, can be involved in both decision making and delivery of outcomes.

Whilst strong communities can help to deliver public service outcomes more effectively and prevent harm, they are not part of the machinery of and cannot be created by any one service. They are part of a healthy civil society, and potentially a building block for democracy and citizenship.

There are potential untapped resources available to support this in the staff and services of many public bodies. There is growing interest in ‘empowering’ practice or ‘co-production’ as part of mainstream public service delivery. According to a Scottish network:

‘Co-production essentially describes a relationship between service provider and service user that draws on the knowledge, ability and resources of both to develop solutions to issues’

It is used in work with both individuals and communities. It is not the same as the involvement of social enterprises and voluntary organisations as commissioned service providers.

Such approaches can have the effect of empowering frontline public service staff and enabling them to work in more creative ways. So can local decision-making structures that allow “local variation rather than standardisation, within a framework of rights” (‘Local Democracy’ Commission).

Although the resource of existing public service staff can be better used, there is still a need for targeted interventions in the form of active community organising and development   work to bring people together and to make the opportunities real for all communities, however disadvantaged. Support for this (in public and voluntary sectors) is a tiny proportion of expenditure, but one which is discretionary and constantly under threat.

Value based community development is an approach to achieving social justice.    According to the International Association of Community Development

“Community development is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes participative democracy, sustainable development, rights, economic opportunity, equality and social justice, through the organisation, education and empowerment of people within their communities, whether these be of locality, identity or interest, in urban and rural settings”

It is an active process. It happens when somebody, from inside or outside an existing or a potential community, stimulates people to achieve things that they might not otherwise do. Tremendous strengths can be found in communities. But these are not automatically put to use, especially when economic disadvantage or rapid social change makes it difficult to do so. Intervention to stimulate and support action is required if communities are to benefit on an equal basis from empowerment legislation and policies.

Community development can also be a strategic vision, integrating the actions of government and indeed voluntary and community groups.  Community Development Alliance Scotland has argued that there should be such a strategic vision at Scottish level, agreed between Scottish Government and partners, locating the case for resources within a common commitment, across public services, to community development as a shared task.  Key elements of such a commitment should include:

  • being clear that communities develop independently and set their own priorities, and public services can work in partnership with them
  • acknowledging the importance of skilled, value-based community work being done when required
  • clear arrangements for local planning, resource sharing and action to enable community development
  • effective implementation of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, with support to groups and areas that might be excluded
  • strong local government, devolving decisions from national and local levels as close to communities as possible
  • resources set aside to delivering outcomes through community-led action, with a proportion of these going to building up the capacity for that action.


“When publics are abandoned, when their voices no longer matter and their identities are demolished through economic inequality, precarity and non-recognition, they lose faith in the political institutions that are supposed to represent them. … Unless all our systems and institutions of public communication engage in open, deliberative and informed debate it is easy to see how hatred and intolerance can spread.(”Brexit: inequality, the media and the democratic deficit Natalie Fenton.

The issues discussed here might seem remote from Brexit. But it is a development which suggests public doubt and confusion about democracy, and yet a strong attachment to the idea, and a debate about how it should develop. I have argued that this must include building and supporting strong communities as a foundation, ensuring that they have access to decision-making institutions at all levels from local upwards, and building wide public involvement in dialogue into both the working of those institutions and the development of proposals for change to them



Peter Taylor has had a career in academic, local government, freelance and voluntary settings that has focused on regeneration and community development in Scotland. Until 2017 he had devoted part of his time for ten years to co-ordinating Community Development Alliance Scotland, the network for national organisations supporting the principles of community development.  Many years ago in the 1980s he was chair of the then Scottish Fabian network.