I’m driving south. Skirting a border that Offa built a dyke to preserve. When people draw maps, they draw fixed lines. Moving through these spaces the lines soon dissolve. They become less solid. Borders are, of course, not real. Until, like Offa, we make them so. They are made by humans, given power and meaning that far exceeds their tangibility or purpose. Offa’s Dyke. Hadrian’s Wall. The Iron Curtain. Brexit. Us and them.
Local government becomes real through imposed borders. Sometimes historical, other times economic or simply convenient. Local government as a representation of place. Not people. Something to govern the locale. A place, a district, a boundary; Within or outwith. Local government imposes borders. Top down. Them and us.
This artificial hierarchy of power has served (or been imposed on) us for some time. Whatever the original logic and value, today it appears flawed, failing and desperately in need of reform. These days local government has little power to do much at all, yet it clings tenuously to what is left. Looking to the past for answers that aren’t there. It needs to be looking to the future.
In Scotland, through the Community Empowerment Act, central government has given away some local government power to citizens and bolstered the rights of communities to act and participate. That’s what the ’big society’ was intended to do. The bill became eroded during the legislative process. Sharp edges softened, powers reduced. Words framed more cautiously. Nervous politicians were appeased.
It’s a step forward, but this kind of legislation is more liminal than transformative. Caught in-between a stale status quo and a hoped-for (by some) new era of participatory democracy. Between ‘doing to’ and ‘doing with’, though still leaning more towards the former. The fearful incumbency does not understand what has hit them.
We can hope the Community Empowerment Act heralds a brave, tentative step towards collaborative government, where all voices can be heard and are given value, but we are not there yet and the borders remain.