The First Meeting of The People’s Council

11049567_10205598024501470_738803066937054368_nOn June 6th, 2015, over 150 people from all corners of Scotland gathered to call for a radical reform of local democracy. Below is the programme for the day, followed by a summary of the event.

An edited video package of the event can be found here.


0900   Registration

1000   The Crisis of Local Democracy  |  Chair: TBC

James Foley  |  How local democracy evolved

Lesley Riddoch  |  How not to do local democracy

1100    Re-imagining Local Democracy  |  Chair: John Finnie MSP

Paddy Bort  |  International comparisons & thoughts from abroad

 Cat Boyd  |  National perspectives

1215    Panel Discussion: Towards a Radical Reform Agenda  |  Chair: Gregor Clunie

 Lesley Riddoch  |  Michael Russelll MSP  |  Cllr Vivien Dance

1315     Lunch  |  Tea, coffee and soup will be available for a donation.

[Please bring along any other food you’ll require as there are no shops or cafes on site.]

1345     Afternoon workshops & discussion sessions  |  What to do, and how to do it?

Participants can attend 2 x 1-hour sessions, choosing from the following:

Lobbying & campaigning  |  Robin McAlpine

How the Council works (or doesn’t)  |  Cllrs Vivien Dance & Iain Angus MacDonald

Land issues & local democracy  |  Jen Stout & Rurigdh McMeddes

Writing The People’s Statement  |  Cat Boyd & Gregor Clunie

Tackling local austerity  |  John Finnie MSP & Stacey Felgate with Cllr Mike Breslin

N.B. Not all workshops will run twice and numbers may be limited.  Participants will be asked to register for their preferred workshops a week before the event.  Anyone who wishes to organise alternative workshops at this time will be welcome to do so in the canteen space.

1600     Plenary session  |  Next Steps for Reform

Session 1 | The Crisis of Local Democracy

The first session featured James Foley (RIC) and Lesley Riddoch (journalist, author and broadcaster). It was chaired by Stacey Felgate (local activist and co-founder of Grassroots Oban).

James spoke on the peculiar consensus which exists around local democracy, a concept which seemingly unites the radical left with the far right, and forces us to question what we mean when we say ‘local democracy’.

Local democracy has long been the victim of centralisation; of national government ‘trimming the fat’ of local authorities in order to make efficiency savings. Now, when many of our politicians talk of the need for more local democracy, what they are really talking about is ‘devolving the axe’ – more trimming of the state, this time by making communities responsible for cuts, and using volunteers to plug gaps left in the system.

“To use one of David Cameron’s examples when he introduced ‘Big Society’, roving gangs of pensioners could be used to clean up parks, ending the needless red tape of having to employ gardeners. Philanthropists could fund food banks for the deserving poor, ending top down, 20th century solutions like the welfare state. And in return for all this volunteering, we are promised more of a say on local matters. More of a say, that is, in what we would like to see cut…

Foley said that there is a potential nastiness underlying some calls for more local democracy, where it essentially becomes an agenda for ‘clobbering those without power’. There’s an underlying traditional morality that says we can make communities stronger by empowering them against trouble makers, and of this we must be wary.

We must remember that local democracy is a means to an end, not a solution in and of itself. We need to be clear on what that end is, and ensure that our agenda addresses the big ethical challenges of the 21st century – sky rocketing inequality and environmental devastation. And local democracy should weaken local elites, with James unashamedly believing that in certain circumstances, we do need a muscular central power to take on the barons that run Scotland’s natural resources.

“If localism in Dumfries means more power to the Duke’s elbow, then in that sense I’m opposed to localism.  I’m not an SNP member, but I firmly prefer the centralism of Nicola Sturgeon to the cronyism of what passes for Tory politics in my area. “

James concluded that if local democracy also means economic democracy, then maybe we have the vision and purpose we need for a local revolution. And whilst official local democracy may indeed be in crisis, our unofficial movement has rebooted the discussion – we need to remain stubbornly optimistic about ordinary people changing the world.

Lesley then took the floor, first doing a tour of the country and finding that our audience hailed from all corners of Scotland (except Aberdeen) before asking us to change our perspective of how we view Scotland in terms of our neighbours. She asked us to look not up and down the map, but across it.

“Scotland is utterly weird

When we stop seeing ourselves in terms of the UK and start looking across to our other neighbours, we begin to see just how out of step we are. Take local election turnout – we compare 30% turn out in England to 38% in Scotland and think we are doing rather well, meanwhile the rest of Europe are sitting at around 70/80% without compulsion.

“The whole of the Britain is doing pretty badly in terms of democratic muscle and democratic health. In fact its not doing too well in health altogether, and well being, and empowerment… all these things curiously regarded as separate where obviously connected.”

Lesley’s PhD work compares the hut traditions of Norway and Scotland. She talked on how things like housing and energy production operate on a local level in the Nordics, and how this level of localism allows national structures, like the Norwegian police force, to be successful, embedded in the community by powerful municipalities – she likens it to a tent held down by 329 tent pegs representing 329 local authorities. Our tent is flapping in the wind!

“Has Scotland to be a tartan version of what’s aye been, or are we really trying to look for a different kind of way to run things? What does it give you to have local control? To have power at the roots of society rather than at the top?”

Lesley put this in context, giving examples from the Nordic countries – talking of the confidence and resilience which is released from a community who assumes it should run its own affairs; a community which has never had to look over it’s shoulder or doff it’s cap to national powers on local issues.

“It’s no coincidence that 523 people own half the private land in Scotland – the greatest concentration in the world –  and we have the largest so called ‘local’ councils in Europe. We are used to not having our hands on the tiller, and we are used to not knowing anyone who has that kind of control, and that is what is deflating our democracy, our standards of living and our health.”

One of her closing remarks was on a community bank that existed in 1910, where locals who invested with the bank were offered half a percentage point more interest that other banks would give, and who lent to the local council at 1% less than other banks would lend, allowing them to invest in services for the local people. How far we have come in 100 years that this kind of virtuous circle is unthinkable given the current set up!

When we pay tax, we send all of our money off down to Westminster, and through gritted teeth they send some money back to Scotland, and through more gritted teeth they send money back to councils who most of us don’t know because they are roughly 2 hours from where a lot of people live. In Sweden, anyone who earns less than 35k pays all of their tax to the local government.

Don’t we trust ourselves? Because why else are we going through this ludicrous laundering of our cash and our democratic muscle? 90% of the services you will use in life are used within 5 miles of your doorstep yet the cash being used to fund these services has done the longest round trip of any pound note in history.

She said that our call for more local democracy questions the very notion of living somewhere whose values are top down, winner takes all, loser takes the hindmost. If you live in a right sized democracy and you wan’t to change something, you just have to vote. If you live in Scotland – which is not a right sized democracy – and you want to change something locally – you have to be a hero! You have to be prepared to have everyone see you as a crank, to bore your friends, to dedicate all your time to it, and still to probably lose.

“All over Scotland, people are trying to do something to correct the unfairness and the imbalance on their own doorstep, and the thing they run into is not their own lack of time or passion. It is the system, and we can change it.

The session was summarised by the chair – we need to be very clear about what we mean by the term local democracy and what it can achieve, particularly in terms of human and social advancement. We must also be acutely aware of the pitfalls – local democracy must mean empowerment in the heart of the community, not just a strengthening of local fiefdoms.

Session 2 | International Perspectives

Session 2 was chaired by John Finnie MSP, and heard from Paddy Bort of Edinburgh University. Unfortunately, Cat Boyd (RIC) was delayed by weather and did not take part in this session as advertised.

Paddy began by telling us that Norway is seriously considering condensing its council structures, as are other European countries, but even so, we are still in our own league! On average, we are are looking at populations between 3,000 – 20,000 per council region compared to 170,000 in Scotland.

“Local democracy has been devolved since 1999. If Holyrood wanted to change the situation it could have done so already. We have to concentrate on a better balance of powers in Scotland, where what we have seen since 1999 is in fact further centralisation”

The ratio of elected officials to the number of citizens they represent is 1:4270 in Scotland. Denmark is the closest to Scotland, having undergone mass centralisation, with 1:2000, whilst France has just 1:125, with 36,000 local areas compared to our 32.

Scotland’s local councils only take responsibility for ~14% of their revenue compared to 50%+ in the rest of the EU. In terms of how many people stand for election, 1 in every 81 people stand in Norway, and in Scotland that is 1 in every 2071. We do not utilise all those who could stand, all of the expertise in our communities.

We have the fewest candidates, the fewest representatives, and some of the lowest levels of engagements in the world. We only have 1223 councillors for the whole of the country, and every second person who stands at local elections is elected!

“When it comes to local government, we’ve got it wrong in Scotland”

Paddy went on to discuss examples of calls for more local democracy.  ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ is a manifesto published by the islands asking for more power and devolution to Orkney, Shetland & the Western Isles. That manifesto was addressed to both governments, and received very little response. The Scottish Cities Alliance have called for a city deal for Glasgow, similar to one being offered to cities in the north of England but with no success.

COSLA have published ‘Strengthening Local Democracy’. The report lays out the possibilities, everything that is wrong with local democracy in Scotland, and several options for its remedy. The report fundamentally questions the current structure of local government, and the report can be read here. (Paddy described the contents as ‘astonishing’ and we highly recommend reading it!)

“It is the time, right now, to come to the consensus that we actually don’t have a functioning local democracy here in Scotland, and to find ways together to remedy it.”

Session 3 | The Radical Reform Agenda

This session took the form of a panel discussion, and featured Michael Russell MSP, independent Cllr Vivien Dance, Lesley Riddoch, and was chaired by Gregor Clunie, local activist and political economist.

Gregor opened the discussion with his thoughts on how Oban and more broadly Argyll & Bute have a great potential to contribute to the national conversation, not least on questions of local democracy. He then handed over to Mike Russell who talked about his vision for immediate reform.

“There is a need for more councils in Scotland, but not more councils like the existing councils. There is a need for more powers at a local level in Scotland, but that doesn’t mean more powers for existing councils. And those are important things for me, because local government, particularly here in Argyll & Bute, doesn’t work. Its not delivering for the people. And devolving more power to people who can’t exercise the power they already have is not a good idea. We need a different approach.”

So what approach would work? Mike described a legislative possibility for the next parliament which could change the map, making local authorities smaller and handing over budgetary power to smaller areas, but that is the work of at least a parliament and will take time. As a much shorter term option, Argyll & Bute Council currently holds the powers it would need to devolve decision making down to Area Committee level. It could be in place within a matter of months, and if such a change was in place by next year, it could act as a template for national reform come the 2016 Scottish elections.

So why don’t our councillors make such a change? Because the turkeys do not often vote for Christmas, said Mike.

Cllr Vivien Dance, an independent councillor from Helensburgh then took to the stage. She endorsed Mike’s plan for the devolution of powers to area level as a start along the journey to local democracy before giving an account of life as a councillor in Argyll & Bute, and the impediments which need dealt with in any reform agenda.

“We need democracy down at local level where it is accountable…Argyll & Bute Council has forgotten the basic mantra that communities empower governments, governments do not empower communities.”

She described the moment when a petition signed by 10,500 people in support of the community bid to buy Castle Toward was handed to the Provost, who said thank you before sticking it under a counter never to be seen again. She then went on to describe how anyone can apply for the job of ‘councillor’ – you do not have to state any qualifications, give a CV, say what you will bring to the democratic process. She asked the audience if they could think of any job where you don’t have to turn up. You don’t have to join any committees. There’s no job description, no qualifications needed. You don’t have to bring any intellect to the table. And yet people like that can sit around a table determining a £250m budget and deciding which care homes to close.

She went on to say that councillors need protection from officers who abuse their position, and currently there is no procedure in place to support ‘whistle blowing’ councillors who disagree with either the administration or the officers. The Code of Conduct however is held over councillors if they dare speak out.

“My grass roots agenda for local democracy is really 3 fold – return power to the area committees, put a mechanism in place to protect councillors from abuse of power from officers and other councillors, and hold Audit Scotland to account, either beefing it up or bringing in someone else to do the job”.

Lesley then asked the room, as those who had self-selected as the keenest in the country where local democracy reform is concerned, how many would consider standing for local elections. Very few raised their hands. This is a vicious cycle, because it doesn’t look like anyone has a problem with the status quo if no-one is willing to challenge it! The area committee idea seemed, she said, to be a viable option, but without a slate of candidates willing to stand in 2017, no one will be there to push it though.

“The horrific prospect for 2017 is that a lot of these guys whose behaviour is just astonishing will not lose their seats. That has got to be the ultimate nightmare for folk here and yet its quite true – when you’ve got a really bad structure and you see people valiantly trying to negotiate and mediate it, you think do I really want to do that? Do I really want to spend my time on a 3 hour round trip to Lochgilphead just to sort out one issue around here?”

Lesley went on to liken the Scottish Government to a referee watching David and Goliath slug it out, and whilst the referee has the power to change the rules of the game completely, maybe just lop 3 feet off Goliath, their solution – the help –  is to give David a few more shots for his sling. There is no fundamental effort at the moment to even up the disparity of power at the council level and the community level other than to slightly micro-manage things so a couple of more powerful communities can manage to perhaps get somewhere with one project – and that’s all we are currently aiming for. It’s not enough.

She said that we are burning ourselves out trying to do this, and all the time there is no question about the amount of energy that Scots are putting into the business of trying to fix things project by project, community by community, but it’s a bit like trying to walk through a park with your jacket hooked on a barbed wire fence – you’ve got to stop and unhook it!

There needs to be an urgency in all of this. We need to get quite tactical quite quickly to decide what kind of move could come from this group, today.

Cllr Michael Breslin was then invited to the stage, where he gave an impromptu run down of what has been going on within Argyll & Bute Council of late, specifically regarding the ongoing ‘service choices’ negotiations.

Cllr Breslin told the meeting about a council seminar which had taken place the day previously, at short notice, to make budget decisions amounting to between 20 & 25% cuts on many services where councillors were asked, with limited information, to use colour coded stickers to decide which jobs were worth saving.

At the meeting, a proposal was made to remove the council’s governance and law staff from Local Area Committees, the implication being that the Area Committees will be wound up. He also explained that there was £500,000 allocated to these area committees which has been taken away without explanation, meaning that they will not be funded even if they do continue to exist – this is fundamentally the wrong direction of travel.

“The ability to make the kind of changes we have been talking about today just does not exist, and is about to be made much more difficult”.

The chair summed up by reminding us that the power to make change was in the room, and that it is up to those of us present to find ways to push for change in the face of all the difficulties highlighted.

Questions were then taken from the floor, with the panellists responding in turn. Topics discussed included the petition to save Castle Toward and the call for an investigation into Argyll & Bute Council, with one gentleman making comment that Argyll & Bute Council’s COSLA representative had remarked that the Community Empowerment Bill would impact the council ‘minimally’.

Another gentleman remarked on work being done in Dunoon’s Forward shop in educating and encouraging people to stand for 2017, and that he felt this should be replicated across the constituency. Lesley asked the room how many would vote for a 5 area committee ‘slate’ of candidates and there wasn’t much of a response. Mike Russell remarked that he hoped 2 years would bring us a long way from today, with increased involvement. What we are looking for here in Argyll at the moment is a way to overcome a complete abuse of authority and of the people. We need to a process to change that right now, we need to change the make up of the council in 2 years, and we need to change things nationally. Each is urgent.

Vivien then went on to call for a right to recall, something which was echoed by members of the audience throughout the day. One question in particular asked about a continual electronic system of recall. The next suggestion from the floor was that radio phone-ins and face to face question times will happen if there is an appetite for them. A point was made regarding a need to ensure that the negativity surrounding poor council performance isn’t allowed to seep out into the hard working council staff and local community enterprises who are succeeding in spite of local government, not because of it.

Lesley summed up by saying that nowhere else in Europe do they rely on hand outs and call it local democracy – it is astonishing that our area committees, for example, are not a right and can be taken away on the whim of the administration of the time.

“There is a perfect window of time to organise for 2017, and whatever people want to go for, it can be gone for if we work together.”

Mike Russell closed the session by saying that councils won’t reform themselves, and whilst a scheme of devolution will help (as will a slate of 2017 candidates), he called for SNP members to help him get this onto the agenda front and centre so he could run it as a national ticket.

“We need radical reform on the Holyrood agenda for next year, because Holyrood can deliver it.”

Workshop 1 | Campaigning & Lobbying

Robin McAlpine of Common Weal joined us to run a 1 hour long workshop on campaigning and lobbying. Please click on the images below to expand the session outputs.

Workshop 2 | Land Issues & Local Democracy

Jen Stout of Scottish Land Action Movement and Rurigdh McMeddes of Planning Democracy ran an hour long workshop on land issues and how they are linked to issues of local democracy. Please click on the images below to expand the workshop outputs.

Workshop 3 | Writing a People’s Statement for Reform

Trade Unionist and RIC campaigner Cat Boyd joined Gregor Clunie and Rachel Parker (outgoing UHI Student Association President) to workshop the first draft of The People’s Statement. Please click on the images to expand the session output. The finished statement can be read here.

Workshop 4 | Tackling Local Austerity and Budgeting

Whilst this session was initially to discuss local austerity issues in a national lens, with particular reference to Porto Alegre and participatory budgeting, a consensus was reached by those in attendance to instead focus on the budget cuts proposed here in Argyll & Bute.

**Proposals in the public domain at time of writing (June 2016) can be found here. Appendix 2 (page 20) gives a colour-coded summary of departments facing cuts**

The session was run by Stacey Felgate, who was joined by Cllr Michael Breslin who gave an overview of the budgeting process as it currently stands, and John Finnie MSP who was able to discuss the issues from his experience both as a councillor and an MSP.

In his opening summary, Cllr Breslin remarked that more could have been done in the months and years leading up to these difficult budget decisions, but the easy route was taken, with very little done in terms of long term planning (An example given later from the room was the lack of forecasts – A&B is one of the few councils who do not have 20/25 year forecasts for adult care provision and school rolls). With specific regard to the proposed cuts, the first councillors knew of this was when they were handed papers at a Policy & Resources committee meeting on 2nd April this year.

Several issues were discussed by the group, including:

Councillor expenses – Out of an annual budget in the region of £240m budget, £52m is deemed ‘out of scope’, including the cost of Councillors themselves – including travel and expenses. This equates to around £1.5m a year. At the same time, plans are being discussed to privatise school meals and council cleaning contracts, meaning that the poorest would be hit the hardest – claims that this would save the council around £1m a year can only be true if done through lower wages and poorer working conditions, leading to the conclusion that making such a decision unethical. The council are going after the ‘easiest hits’ – why can efficiency savings not be made in the way the councillors themselves conduct business? Car sharing, video conferencing… Cllr Breslin estimated that 65% of his expenses are for travel to and from Kilmory – more local democracy would remove this cost, and he suggested we could actually save £1m a year if we handled more decisions locally, yet it is not open for discussion. 

However, the council will tell you they are to save 7% on the cost of Councillors in 2017 – by removing 3 positions! The local area committee boundaries are to be redrawn, and 2 seats will no longer exist. That is less representation when we are shouting for more!

John commented that the whole process needs more transparency – the public need to know what is being discussed, and councillors need more time to read papers – Cllr Breslin was handed papers at last budget meeting and was not allowed to take them away with him afterwards. How can councillors be expected to make reasoned, informed decisions in that kind of window of opportunity, given that these papers are 100s of pages long?

On the subject of transparency, it was noted that these budget decisions or ‘service choices’ are being made by a Project Board, which operates out with the rules which normally govern council committees. This board has no meeting dates, no minutes, all members are sworn to secrecy, and no papers are published. This level of undue secrecy is unacceptable, and could be resolved by the instigation of a Short Life Working Group, something Cllr Walsh is fully able to do yet chose not to.

The room also questioned whether any Equality Impact Assessments had been carried out for these cuts, and discussed the fact that the council had a moral and statutory obligation to do meaningful public engagement.

Workshop 5 | How the Council Works (or Doesn’t)

Cllr Vivien Dance spoke to the group about how the council works from a democratic perspective.

She began by explaining the difference between officers & elected members before going on to point out that there is a national code of conduct that makes it clear that councillors and employees shall act with mutual trust and respect – but this has been used to silence dissent. The original principle has been turned on its head by those who would quash dissenters as acting contrary to the code. The council’s constitution should rule the day, but does it?

Senior officers are appointed by elected members who are on an appointment panel.The council has been politicized and there are problems with multi-member wards as it is hard to get to know members and the public can pit members against each other as you may have members of several different parties representing the same wards.

After further discussion, some outcomes were noted from the session.

The current sized local council is a barrier to democracy.


There should be a system of recall for councillors who have lost the confidence of their communities.


There is a failure of proper audit oversights of councils.


There is an urgent problem with A&B council, its procedures and threatening behaviour towards outspoken councillors and staff.


Session 4 | Plenary

Gregor Clunie opened the session by thanking everyone for their attendance, before handing over to Stacey Felgate who reported back on the workshop on tackling local austerity:

“…we talked about proposed cuts which are unethical and uninformed. 20 – 25% cuts in adult care with no planning for the future and no forecasts to determine need. Hundreds of jobs are to be cut from the poorest, with privatisation of school meals and cleaning contracts whilst councillor expenses are ring fenced because it is easier to hit the bottom rung than deal with embedded structural dysfunction.”

Jen Stout then talked briefly on the subject of 38 degrees and the power of on-line campaigning for local activists, before Cllr Vivien Dance summarised the feelings within her workshop on how the council operates, calling for a review of council size, an urgent investigation into Argyll & Bute Council, the development of a system of recall, and the beefing up or replacement of Audit Scotland. She finished by asking how she and the people in the room could help support and fund the idea of ‘The People’s Council’ and calling for the instigation of a community education programme.

Cat Boyd then took the stage. She began by explaining that she had always felt dis-empowered by local government, and had a tense relationship with her local council in Glasgow, fighting against its austerity agenda and campaigning against the privatisation of public spaces, including the demolition of the concert hall steps.

She went on to say that our local structures are the product of Conservative and New Labour rule, and the continual centralisation by Holyrood.

“The problems of local government and the crisis of local democracy is not confined to one area of Scotland. This is a national crisis, and it cannot be ignored…


The notion of a People’s Council is both reasonable and revolutionary. It is reasonable because our demands are achievable; they are realistic. But it is also revolutionary, because our vision for change is not just of piecemeal reform around the edges, but it is for a restructuring of the current local democracy order…


Building and fighting for local democracy right now is not open for negotiation.”

The day was closed with a reading of the first draft of The People’s Statement, the final draft of which can be seen here.


This event was organised by a group of community activists in Oban with help from others throughout Argyll and, indeed, the world! 

The Oban team were Rhona Dougall,  Stacey Felgate,  Jonathan Robertson, Kieron Green, Rachel Parker & David Ross, with thanks to everyone who helped us put the event together, on the day, on-line, and especially to those who came along!


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