Saturday, 8 September 2012

Power to the people!

The Scottish Greens' policy on Local and Community Government begins "The Scottish Green Party strongly favours decentralised government. Government should be carried out at the most local tier possible".

With only 32 councils for a population of over 5 million, Scots are more remote than anyone else in Europe from their own 'local' councils. Contrast this with 36,000 councils in France and you see what I mean.

We do, of course, have community councils. However, with most attracting insufficient interest to hold elections and with little influence let alone power to do anything, they are largely seen as platforms for people with particular interests, agendas or budding political careers. I know, I was one of them. And with turnout at all elections on a downward spiral, politicians need to do something fast to re-engage with people - and that engagement needs to be a two-way process.

Thankfully this has started happening. Edinburgh City Council, led by Labour council leader Andrew Burns, is endeavouring to make the city a Co-operative Council. Many councils across the UK are now webcasting their meetings, with Edinburgh currently running a pilot scheme. I have been promised cross-party support for a motion I will be presenting this month to Midlothian Council to do the same. Also the Scottish Government is consulting on its proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.

All of these measures will, it is hoped, give individuals and communities the information and tools to start influencing decisions - and more importantly, get involved in the running of some of the services which directly affect them.

We also need to change the culture inherent within the decision making process. Instead of asking what can be done, we need to ask why can something not be done. This week I managed to borrow a map of the Bonnyrigg ward showing land owned by the council. It's disturbing how little is still left in public hands - after discounting areas used by council housing, schools and public buildings there are a few parks and that's about it.

Also, with much of the ward already designated for housing (and currently being built on) and land towards the Borders Railway considered a high priority for housing, the future looks grim if simply left to the god of 'Economic Development' to make decisions for us.

With the Midlothian Local Development Plan up for renewal shortly, now is the time for communities to get organised and to say what they want before it's too late. I've already been speaking to the local Community Development Trust to see how we can work together to ensure as much land as possible is earmarked for green spaces and community use, but this needs to happen across the whole of Midlothian. If we wait until the plan is agreed, it could be 2032 before we get another chance.

I'm currently reading Andy Wightman's book The Poor Had No Lawyers, which gives a detailed history of why most of Scotland was essentially misappropriated by "legal" means. Today the same thing is happening but in a different way - land which should be available to communities as recreational space is being lost in the name of economics. When land is lost to development, the 'planning gain' always contributes towards further development - new schools and roads. That's not a bad thing in itself, but why shouldn't it also be in the form of protection from further development - park land, community woodland and the like?

Decentralised government does not mean stopping at Scotland's 32 local authorities. It means  decision making at community level with everyone having a voice and those voices being listened to.  Let's make sure this happens.

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