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.

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10 thoughts on “Pride of Place

  1. Quote, “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. ”

    Surely the good prof knows that there are currently more SNP councillors than Labour, and that on current voting trends in council by-elections the SNP are on course to further increase their number of councillors.

    Surely, too, the good prof also knows that civic nationalism not only derives it’s authority and legitimacy from a sense of national identity and individual citizenry but also from a sense of community. It is little wonder that SNP have always done well in local government.

    1. Inevitably the nationalists among this sites readers were going to pounce on that deliberate inclusion – and thus enable me in response to make a party political point to illustrate what I mean.

      Because surely the good Mac knows that one of the first acts of the SNP government was to prevent elected Councils from raising their own finances – one of the hallmarks of effective and independent local government?

      Surely the good Mac also knows that alongside that financial restriction the SNP government will now only make up the shortfall from that restriction (under the guise of ‘removing ringfencing’) if elected Councils only follow the policies required by central government?

      Nationalist government is by its nature centralising government (of course – it wants to strengthen the ‘nation’). And having party representation at a local Council level, Mac, is no evidence to the contrary.

      1. One doesn’t improve a cars performance by fitting electric windows one has to give the engine all the power available to it first so that tinkering to others functions makes them more user friendly.

        1. It always surprises me that folk who demand greater powers for Scotland, presumably on the basis that such powers are best used by those closest to the point of action (eg Holyrood), also seem reluctant to give further powers (or even allow the use of existing powers) to those further down the chain (eg local councils).

          We are about to have a national police force and fire service which will mean that virtually everything in our life will be decided at Holyrood, with local councillors have less and less power to decide what to do – regardless of which party they are from.

      2. That’s not really a valid argument because when Labour were in power they exercised far more control over local government policy than the SNP does. And they were also guilty of passing legislation which was to be implemented by local government without even consulting them. Anti-social behaviour legislation being a good example of that – there was very little consultation with local government over that, which was something that enraged Labour councillors as much as SNP councillors.

        And if we are going to look at the council tax issue one of the reasons council tax went up by 60 per cent under Labour is because central government imposed policies weren’t properly funded. Effectively central government forced councils to put up council tax to pay for policies which were being imposed on them from Edinburgh.

        And the underlying problem of course is that council tax is inherently regressive and needs to be replaced. We have four years to agree a replacement – whether that be a local income tax, a land value tax, some combination of the two or indeed something completely different. If Labour don’t get involved in that debate in a serious way then they will have no credibility at all on the issue.

        Lastly regarding the council tax freeze – the SNP were elected on a commitment to fund a 5 year council tax freeze so there is a democratic mandate for that. If Labour wants to overturn that they have the option of seeking a democratic mandate to make that case at the local government elections in May. Are they going to campaign on a platform of opposing the council tax freeze?

      3. Councils had the option of refusing the cash from central Government and raising council tax as they wished. The Government simply gave them the opportunity to freeze the tax in the interests of the local tax payers. They all decided to accept the offer – this was a local decision

        In return, Councils were asked to agree to specific outcomes. The additional money was not, to my knowledge, ring-fenced and a lot of the bureaucracy associated with ring-fencing was done away with

  2. “Think of an unsuccessful place – and the destruction of solidarity, social justice and prosperity is clear.”

    This is indeed the type of place where Labour can make great strides in garnering support and sending representatives South to argue and strive for the wellbeing of the constituents.

    It may take years, some may say its already been decades, but the fruits of constantly returning these champions of the underdog to the Mother of Parliaments must surely shortly manifest themselves.

  3. I reckon I am in broad agreement with you here Professor, but I have to say, with a sigh, that the electorate are not.

  4. Re Piscator

    Either that is a price example of taking the unmentionable – or the ultimate expression of blind faith in the face of three lifetimes of experience of the complete opposite. The other alternative is that it is an example of escaping harsh reality by taking refuge in fantasy.

    Evasion is no way to address how Labour can be dragged kicking and resisting, to address Scottish needs and aspirations. Playing catch up is no answer. Labour have to lead by being a key player in winning independence, then being a legitimate and credible alternative government.

  5. I always considered Labour to be a British Nationalist Party. There have certainly been enough Labour politicians proclaiming their Nation to be Britain and when the referendum comes along that number will multiply.

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