Cllr Archie Graham: true devolution means we mustn’t hoard power

Cllr Archie Graham pictureBy Cllr Archie Graham
Deputy Leader, Glasgow City Council

Devolution is the buzzword ringing around today: from the corridors of Whitehall, Holyrood and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, to town halls up and down the UK. Scotland’s referendum on independence sparked an unprecedented level of engagement and debate about how power is shared in the UK. But the most important piece of learning to come out of recent months is that true devolution not only needs a radical reconfiguration of local and national administrative entities, but more importantly requires a fundamentally new relationship between the state (at various levels) and the citizen. The recent report from the Smith Commission recognised this, highlighting the need for a ‘transfer of powers from Holyrood to local communities.’

But to support this ambition we as local authorities must transform the way we work: moving from corporate organisations that simply deliver services to community leaders that seek to improve and develop their place. This is the challenge that cooperative councils are grappling with. We may not be all the way there yet, but a recent CCIN Conference hosted by Glasgow City Council really highlighted to me just how much progress has been made despite the financial challenges we face. You can read a summary of the key learning points here, but I want to highlight a few things that I took away that are particularly important if we want to put our communities at the heart of a new settlement.

First, we must relate to our communities in a new way. The basic principle that should underpin our organisational culture is that we must do things with people, rather than to them. This means rejecting the traditional ‘command and control’ model of local government and becoming more cooperative. In the conference we heard examples of neighbourhood partnerships, co-produced employment support programmes, direct devolution of money to communities through participatory budgeting and connecting high-level growth plans with the needs and aspirations of people and neighbourhoods. This way of working also means having new conversations with local businesses and other partners, such as working with them to create jobs for local people or to promote the living wage. Although we need to work in a new way, we must also ensure that devolution to communities is progressive and doesn’t have a regressive impact on those that are less confident or resourceful. This means actively seeking out and building the capacity of people that aren’t the usual suspects.

Second, we must strengthen the role of councillors as advocates of local communities. Councillors often have to wear two hats: helping to ensure smooth corporate service delivery, but also being advocates of their local communities. Striking the right balance between these two can be challenging, but it is the ‘community champion’ role that is becoming increasingly important – and it is essential if we want local people to take greater responsibility for local spending and delivery. Several cooperative councils, including Oldham and Sunderland, have developed community leadership programmes for local councillors to strengthen this part of their role. The experience has been that new expectations around their roles has encouraged them to look at local challenges in new ways; to be less risk averse and to connect better with their place.

Third, we must appreciate our potential and not only our constraints. Yes, public sector cuts and rising demand will severely test the services we deliver. But we must also appreciate, harness and develop the resources we have at our disposal: from the skills, experiences and talent of our workforce and partners; to our knowledge of how local areas work and the large pots of funding we still reside over or have an influence on. Some cooperative councils are looking at how public money across a whole area can be more effectively used through partnerships with other parts of the public sector. The success of local work programmes also demonstrates that our role as part of a place can help us achieve better outcomes.

Devolution of power to communities is a key ingredient of cooperative localism. But to make it work we must recognise that devolution isn’t simply about transfers of power between different arms of the state. It is more fundamentally about a new relationship with communities and local partners. The three points I have identified above provide some suggestions for how we can put this into practice. We must seize the moment.

Cllr Archie Graham is Deputy Leader of Glasgow City Council.