“I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.”
Jimmy Stewart, playing Jefferson Smith in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, one of my all-time favourite films. At this time of year he’s probably best remembered for It’s a Wonderful Life, but his portrayal of a humble local guy “looking out for the other fella” and attempting to cut through national political shenanigans is much more relevant to our time.
Today I used some precious free time to observe my first ever full meeting of East Lothian Council. So, OK, I’m not Jimmy Stewart (despite Wife-features’ claims) and the town house in Haddington isn’t exactly the US Senate but stick with me on this comparison.
Local democracy in Scotland is in a terrible state. Turnouts at elections are low and the make-up of councils doesn’t reflect the populations being served. (For example, East Lothian has 23 councillors. Only 21 attended today’s meeting – 19 men and 2 women. Almost all are around retirement age. Four of the 21 didn’t say a word during the 3 hour meeting.)
How decisions are made, and how accountable local councils are, are issues that I suspect most people have given up on. Councils don’t listen, people tell me. They’ve already decided so why bother with the consultation, they say. How can I influence what they do, I’m asked.
Today’s meeting highlighted exactly these problems. The first item was the proposed additional secondary school for the Musselburgh catchment. (It did feel odd discussing this 12 miles away from the affected catchment.) This will be at Wallyford, taking pupils from Wallyford primary and Pinkie St Peter’s primary in Musselburgh. I say will, because the majority of councillors backed the recommendation. 6 SNP councillors dissented, choosing to abstain rather than vote against, citing local concerns.
Despite a number of councillors pointing out the perceptions in the community that the consultation was flawed and that little discussion had been had about the range of options, the new school will go ahead. When an SNP councillor attempted to widen the discussion to seek assurances about investment in the existing Grammar School and the possibility of ending its PFI contract, a Labour councillor lashed out. It wasn’t the only example during the meeting of these two tribes clearly not getting on!
There was a discussion on Universal Credit, as East Lothian has become a testing ground for the UK Government’s so-called welfare reforms. The change has led to increased rent arrears, stress for recipients and council staff and poses a risk to council revenue. It was interesting to note that one of the Tory councillors (they form the administration with Labour; all 3 Tories are stepping down in the Spring ahead of the elections) chose to brand such concerns “carping” and in the end the Tories did not support the call for action.
Having sat through this three hour meeting (I wonder what public health officials would make of that?) I can see why there isn’t a queue to view the Council in action. There were a few flashes of excitement but overall it was pretty technical. Was I the only ordinary person in the room? Will people get to hear what their councillors said and how they behaved? I spotted Marie from the East Lothian Courier, so I expect we’ll get a report in the paper. I’m surprised that these meetings aren’t webcast, so the public can scrutinise their representatives.
Like I say, local democracy is in a bad state. The cash going to East Lothian from the Scottish Government in the coming year will fall by 3.5%. Other funds coming East Lothian’s way relate to social care staff wages and attainment for headteachers so the Council has no flexibility. The Scottish Government has ringfenced funds to the point where councils’ hands are tied. This can only worsen engagement and trust in our local authorities and further erode turnout at the elections.
A revival of local democracy is worth fighting for. I’m already known for badgering councillors and officials so they understand local concerns and the need to involve the community in decisions that affect us. I don’t know if I’ll be back to Haddington town house anytime soon but I certainly feel we could have it so much better.
In the words of Mr Smith: “I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause!”