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Can a Rural Parliament succeed without stronger local democracy?

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What is a “rural movement”? What does a “rural parliament” do? What would be the indicators of success? In particular, what kind of local governance structure will give a rural parliament the best chance to deliver real impacts?Last week, I was one of three SEGS researchers who joined 400 eager/curious/fired up representatives of rural interest groups at the first Scottish Rural Parliament (SRP) in Oban. The programme included formal plenary sessions, a large number of workshops, “fringe events” (mostly presentations and discussions by lobby groups), visits to various good practice examples, and an opportunity to discuss and vote on the future of the event and the organisation behind it. A well supported exhibition allowed a very broad range of organisations (including The James Hutton Institute) together with local businesses, to interact with the delegates, and the good humoured atmosphere was helped by good food and excellent musical contributors ranging from local high school students to “well-kent” professional musicians.

The first Rural Parliament was held 26 years ago in Sweden (for more information see its website at http://lbrd.helasverige.se/english/). It has been repeated there every two years since, with a format broadly similar to that of the SRP. These events are closely associated with the Swedish village movement, a rural lobby group whose slogan is “Hela Sverige ska leva” (all of Sweden shall live). The rural parliament concept has spread to a number of European countries (Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia), and last year there was even a European Rural Parliament.

The Swedish local governance system is very different to that of Scotland. Scotland (like the rest of the UK) has one of the most centralised public administrations and one of the weakest local democratic frameworks in Europe. This has been very clearly and powerfully illustrated by two reports recently produced by Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy.

In Sweden (even after a recent process of amalgamation in the pursuit of economies of scale) there are 290 municipalities for a population of 9.5 million, and locally elected municipality officials represent, on average, a couple of hundred people. In Scotland just 32 Local Authorities represent 5.2 million, and the councillor/resident ratio is more than 1:4,000. In Sweden the average turnout for local elections is over 80%, whilst here in Scotland it is only half that. In Sweden income tax is collected by municipalities, and accounts for a majority of their income. In Scotland only 20% of Local Authority expenditure is raised locally. As a result of this and other factors, Scottish local authorities appear constrained and more standardised in terms of what they do.  Swedish municipalities seem to have a lot more autonomy, and freedom to innovate in response to local needs and opportunities.

Given these deep contrasts in the governance environment, it is an open question whether a Scottish Rural Parliament will be able to influence rural policy and local development practice to the same extent as the Swedish model. Having said that, as a forum and “mouthpiece” for rural interests the SRP fills a void left by the demise of Rural Forum and this can only be a good thing in terms of providing a counterweight to urban interests. It is also encouraging that the Scottish Rural Parliament has the support of the Scottish Government Minister responsible for rural policy (Richard Lochhead). Only time will tell, but the SRP has certainly provided another reason to use the phrase “interesting times!”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/can-rural-parliament-succeed-without-stronger-local-democracy on 29/01/23 08:15:42 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.