Empowering local communities – lessons from the islands
Kezia Dugdale MSP has just returned from a trip to the Western Isles, and here she reflects on what she has learnt and what it should mean for Scottish Labour.
Over the past month, all across Scotland, the Scottish Labour Party has been having a vibrant conversation about our future direction.
This campaign has allowed me to visit most corners of Scotland, and speak to members and non-members about the future of our party and our nation.
There was no hustings event on our country’s islands, so I decided to travel to the Western Isles and have spent the past two days meeting party members, community leaders and local officials, hearing of their local successes and some of the challenges they face as a community.
I visited the local Citizens Advice branch and many of the problems they face are no different to what you would find in Leith, Drumchapel or Kelty. Fuel poverty is a huge issue. Some families are in extreme fuel poverty, spending at least 30% of their household incomes on heating their home. 71% – yes 71% – are in fuel poverty.
The term “heating or eating” is used a lot in politics but it is no more applicable than to some of the families and individuals living in our island communities.
Only by electing a Labour government in May’s general election will we be ready to drastically change the monopolisation of our energy markets, and that could significantly help these families. Our ambition shouldnt stop there either. Labour should commit to a huge energy efficiency onslaught that recognises the challenges of so many stone built houses, with external cladding grants that could both save money and create jobs. And the still untapped potential of renewables depends on massive investment in the interconnector. Hundreds of jobs depend on and will come from that infrastructure, but who is listening in either London or Edinburgh?
Many of the conversations I’ve had over the past forty-eight hours have had one underlying theme: people want more control over the decisions that affect their lives, and that is why we must extend the principle of devolution to all parts of our nation. That must be one of Scottish Labour’s guiding principles from this point on.
The SNP’s “one size fits all” approach to Scotland hasn’t worked for too many communities. The relentless process of centralisation towards Edinburgh has failed these communities and so many in a similar situation. Their distance from the central belt shouldn’t result in them being peripheral to our politics.
Nationalism and devolution are two very different animals. The nationalists believe that everything should be run on a Scotland-wide basis, with power residing in Edinburgh as close to ministerial control as possible.
The Western Isles have seen this process happening in relation to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Crofters Commission, the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme and many more. Budgets have been cut, powers removed or – in the case of HIPP which distributed European funding – the organisation has been wound up altogether and the money taken under central control.
We see quangos like Caledonian MacBrayne, which make decisions crucial to the Western Isles, yet there is not a single islander on their boards. The council has little or no say over ferry timetables – it’s ridiculous and exasperating.
The creation of a national police force has led to a completely invisible quango replacing the role of regional police boards which involved elected members. Labour supports the operational case for some aspects of policing being organised on a Scotland-wide basis – but the complete removal of local accountability has created a major democratic deficit.
I welcome the Smith Commission’s recommendation that the Crown Estate revenues should not stop at Edinburgh but should be transferred straight to the relevant local communities. But once again, this is something that has been resisted by the SNP who want the money retained in Edinburgh under centralised control.
The three islands councils have set out a radical and visionary agenda through their “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign, and Labour will support the principles which underpin it. I look forward to detailed discussions on how best it can be implemented in future, both from Holyrood and Whitehall.
Not only will we reverse the centralisation process within government, we will also apply the same principle to our own policy-making. The whole point of devolution is to take government closer to the people and to tailor policy to their needs.
I want to see local manifestos for every part of Scotland, each compatible with our general programme for government, but tailored in great detail to fit the very different needs and priorities of the diverse Scotland in which we live. What’s convenient for Holyrood is not necessarily what’s good for the Western Isles.