Patrick Phillips: The relationship between citizen and state has to change at local level

Ben Wray

Patrick Phillips, writer and artist, argues that the concept of Local Authorities needs to be totally overhauled, including linguistically, so that the relationship between citizen and state is re-born

I HAVE written previously for CommonSpace about how my mother and I were treated at a time of crisis in our lives by the local authority. We were facing an illegal eviction and corruption of council tax payment from our landlord.

Instead of empathy, our situation was made worse through the behaviour of so-called “civil” servants. But why? Because we fought back, it was clear to them and us that our private landlord was not following the Law; but neither were they. They did nothing to help us fight back against our landlord; in the end, what prevented us from near homelessness, was finding a home in a new area two weeks before the eviction date.

Today, I am still coming to terms with the absurd fact that we might have been made destitute in our community. Again, looking back to what we had endured, I think to myself, what had created the conflict in the first place? Why did it become a contemptuous, oppressive and invisible ‘civil war’ between me and an institution of local Government? Why did their behaviour become so personal? We were not against them as individuals, only seeking representation and protection from an injustice we had no control over. Let us not forget that local authorities are there to fulfil essential human needs, no?

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I realise now that much of what exacerbated the relationship between myself and my Local Authority at the time, was the obvious and still continuing political situation in the UK today; Austerity. However, I can’t help but think how nowadays austerity has become a poor excuse to do nothing. This is not the first-time local authorities have experienced austerity in Scotland, nor probably will it be the last.

No one should have to fight with their Local Authority nor seek legal representation, where blatant Local Authority negligence has been exposed. Today we never hear of what injustices have been committed by them, because most community members can’t afford legal fees (another injustice). Local Authorities should be a place of human compassion,  rather than just a statue of bureaucracy and policy representation.

What is therefore urgently needed now is a fresh approach to the relationship between policy implementation and the administration (mostly unnecessary) that accompanies each procedure of socio-economic legislation within our communities. Democracy, in the form of human rights for example, has been socially declared; it’s part of the Social Contract. But as with so much of what is called ‘democracy’ in place today, where is the evidence of our improved communities? A new debate is desperately needed at Holyrood more than ever to deconstruct Local Authority and declare that it does not create social peace but unrest.

Most importantly, we must change the linguistics of local governance. And I begin with the name itself: local ‘Authority’ – why is the decision making not in the hands of the individual, when it has been written that local authorities are there to provide services, not judgement? How is providing a service a requirement for authority?

So much of the problems we face within our local communities have and still are being self-created within “our” Local Authorities. It is a serious matter of public relation, but where is the relationship?

The whole problem – at least how I now see it – is that of language, both how it is written and verbally communicated to (not just “members of the public”) but community members.

Receiving a threatening letter (mass produced) from your Local Authority only exacerbates our social crisis further. And crucially, effective communication can determine a better result for community members. Technology may have enabled us to communicate faster, but rarely effectively.

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If we had a new language both written and verbal in the way local authorities are run and communicate with community members and themselves, we would see new communities emerge across Scotland, more united. Communities helping in the day to day running of a Local Authority: clear, concise and transparent.

To begin the change needed we firstly need to establish what is the actual relationship between Councillor and MSP? For example, when we have local elections to elect a new party councillor how does that actually represent local democracy? When we think again about the ‘decision-making’ not being in the hands of both a community member and community – why have we no local parliament in our communities to represent local elections? Why is there a serious lack of informing community members about change within their communities? Why do so many community members, instead of going to their elected councillor, go to their elected MSP?

Beyond the issue of language, I think the problem of the serious lack of democracy and transparency within our local authorities and the lack of training given to civil servants is destroying the social relationship between community members and Local Government.

Picture courtesy of Ben Lee