Devolution cannot just mean a transfer from Westminster to Holyrood but must involve the extension of power to our local communities, PROFESSOR TREVOR DAVIES argues.
We saw it many years ago with ‘I ♥ NY’. Then we had ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’. This summer it was the Peckham Peace Wall. Pride of place.
We’re all attached to where we live. And where we live and how we live there deeply affects how well we live. Our places affect the well-being of all of us. Some places, we know, are safer than others and some are healthier than others, some even help us to be more active. There are some places where children grow up happily and in contact with a wide range of people and there are some places where fearfulness keeps kids indoors. There are places where enterprise and business flourish and others where work is hard to get and harder still to keep and better access to opportunities to work appears to be what most quickly improves the overall well-being of communities. It makes a difference, too, if we can get easily to the services we need, to our family, friends and neighbours and if we have access to nature, to learning, to support.
Solidarity, social justice, prosperity – for that’s what we’re talking about – are all reflected in and are conditioned by the nature and quality of the place in which we live. We’ve seen social solidarity crumble over recent years, with increasing resentment and fear of people ‘below’ us. Social justice is under threat as the very rich hoover up more of society’s wealth. And our prosperity is now taking a serious knock. Of course, to turn that around requires action at the national and global level. But it also requires effective action at the level of place, because first of all, citizens of the world though we may be, our well-being is shaped by where we live.
Think of an unsuccessful place – and the destruction of solidarity, social justice and prosperity is clear. There’s congestion in traffic and overcrowding in housing. The rich live in areas that are separated off from the poor. External monopolies run the shops and work-places rather than local businesses, taking their profits elsewhere. The centre is decaying as out-of-town ‘malls’ expand but only for those with cars. Pollution remains high. The natural environment is degraded, public spaces are dangerous and some areas are ‘no-go’. The built environment is shoddy and short-lived. Local institutions struggle to survive. The whole place becomes the servant of money, mostly from elsewhere. And local politics, because it has little choice, will do what it can to secure more of that external money. There are many places that, at least in parts, fit that description in Scotland, from the capital outwards.
In comparison, the successful place will help build solidarity, underpin social justice and promote prosperity. There is a diversity of people, activity and building. Local institutions and organisations cut across and include people from all walks. There are strong connections, physically and socially, that help local enterprise flourish. Profit remains in local hands to be spent on local goods. Economic, social and natural capital is fixed firmly in place, with long-lived buildings and well-used public space. Everyone feels safe to go anywhere. With a strong local economy the influence of external money is reduced. The place is the servant of the people who inhabit it. Local politics seeks to develop the well-being of the place as the means to improve the well-being of the people. Places like this are too rare in Scotland today.
And it will stay that way if we continue to act as if politics is essentially how to make central government and its services run better, whether there are increasing sums of money, as there used to be, or austerity, as there will be for the foreseeable future. Those big objectives of solidarity, social justice and prosperity require equal and complementary action at the local level of place. It’s at the local level the real heavy lifting needs to take place if we are to succeed.
Think global, act local. It’s the essence of devolution.
Devolution that makes a difference does not begin and end with our creation of a Parliament in Edinburgh. Devolution must continue, if our large goals are to be met, to the local level of the places where we live.
Of course, when all parties are out of power, there’s talk of going local. Localism is a pendulum which swings right back to the centre when parties are in power. That swing back can’t happen and won’t happen with parliamentary devolution to Edinburgh because it was a constitutional settlement. And the next natural stage of devolution on to the level of place needs a new constitutional settlement too if it is to embed and mature.
A new constitutional settlement between central and local government in Scotland is where devolution will make a difference to everyone’s well-being. It is where nationalism dare not go, because it makes the mechanisms of nation weaker and those of community stronger. It requires a deep democratic and financial renewal of local government, which is now broken-backed and far less effective than our communities and places need it to be. It requires reform of the roles and powers of both central and local government, starting from first principles. Perhaps we can think that the task of central power is to improve, challenge and develop the capacity of local action. And the task of local power is to deliver all that is necessary at the level of place and to inform, challenge and hold central power to account. Perhaps it evens means an approach which mirrors the Scotland Act – making everything local, except specified reserved central powers.
Above all a new devolved constitutional settlement between central and local government requires big-hearted parliamentary politicians who can see that continuing the devolution story to the level of place, though it may restrict their own responsibilities to that of legislation, will over time greatly improve the well-being of the people they serve.
Trevor Davies is an honorary professor of urban studies at the University of Glasgow and a former Labour councillor in Edinburgh.