It is important that we understand that absolutely nowhere in Europe and probably nowhere in the developed world is as centralised and centrally-controlled as Scotland. If you look at indicators of just how bad Scotland is at making decisions nowhere near the people they affect, you cannot help but feel shocked.
Scotland's councils have 30 times the population size of an average European country's local councils, which means that the average European citizen's voice is 30 times louder in local decisions than the average Scottish citizen. The land area of a Scottish 'local' authority is 50 times bigger than the land size of the average European local authority. So we can assume that on average, a Scottish citizen will have to travel 50 times as far to get to their council headquarters. Scotland is the only European country that only has one layer of local government. The ratio of elected councillors to citizens in Scotland is six times worse than the European average, which means that the average European councillor can be six times more responsive than can a Scottish councillor.
Almost everyone who has been in government over the last 20 years shares responsibility for this—no political party has a respectable track record when it comes to creating Europe's most centralised country. Scotland should be ashamed of this track record—and politicians who make arguments in favour of being the least democratic country among their peers should also be ashamed. People are right to be very suspicious of politicians who say they are 'empowering' them without actually giving them any new power.
There is only one true form of power that communities and citizens can hold in a democracy and that is the power to make decisions about policy and resources through democratic means. Put bluntly, if you can't 'fire' the people who make a bad decision for your town, you're not empowered. Scotland's vast local authorities mean that it is almost impossible to hold them to account for individual decisions.
There is only one solution: Scotland must move into the mainstream of local democracy in Europe and recognise that some decisions are national and some decisions are regional—but some decisions really are local. We need genuinely local councils—because the ones that we have are regional. Scotland needs a new layer of community democracy so communities (and not sprawling regions) can make their own decisions.
This does not involve expensive reorganisation of local government. The officer staff in existing authorities already work to direction from different committees within the existing councils. All that is required is that they take direction on different functions from two different councils. The existing councils should be properly described as what they in effect are: regional councils. In this context there is a case for exploring some mergers, particularly of the smaller councils but also in places where recognised regional areas are currently divided (such as Lanarkshire and Ayrshire).
Below this level would be a layer of genuinely local councils. The process of identifying where these are and what size they are should be driven by the communities involved. We should be very comfortable with wide differences in size between these local councils. Some might consist of a small group of adjacent rural villages. Some might be the size of a small town, some the size of a big town. Cities might be considered single authorities—or areas within cities (for example Govan in Glasgow) might wish their own local representation. The important thing is that however these councils are structured, the communities they serve must feel that they are genuinely 'their' councils.
At this community democracy level, local councillors should not be paid (other than expenses) and council meetings should take place in the evening so all citizens have an opportunity to become community politicians. These councils should be adaptable and innovative in achieving a diverse and representative council; for example holding alternative meeting hours to make participation possible for more women, considering a system of discretionary assistance for low-pay workers, or ensuring that materials, buildings, and services are accessible for disabled Scots. The cost of running these local councils will be minimal, however, they should have the right to be powerful. Scotland should aspire to devolve real power as far as possible, whenever possible.