As Glasgow prepares to host global leaders at COP26, the eyes of the world are turning towards the city for the first time since the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
The pressure is on, and Susan Aitken, the SNP council leader since 2017, is bearing the brunt of complaints about what critics say are dirty streets, the many gap sites and the authority’s troubled relationship with trade unions. In a recent, excruciating television interview, she was repeatedly challenged to admit the streets were “filthy”, finally admitting the place could do with a “spruce up”.
For the past year, as November’s COP26 summit has drawn nearer, Aitken has occupied an elevated status among her fellow regional and urban leaders. She has addressed the World Bank, formed close relationships with the mayors and administrations of many of the world’s great cities, and worked closely with England’s directly-elected mayors such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan. She has also held discussions with private investors, and would like the UK government to stand behind the multi-billion-pound borrowing Glasgow and others need to renew their municipal fabric and create green infrastructure. She sees COP26 as an unmissable opportunity to accelerate the city’s economic resurgence and improve its global profile.
Aitken admits Glasgow isn’t what it could be. Covid, economic challenges, and strained relationships with the unions have all had an impact. And in important ways her hands are tied, not by international institutions or the UK government, but by Nicola Sturgeon. It’s generally accepted that Scottish local government is among the most circumscribed in Europe. Devolution to Holyrood has not been accompanied by devolution from Holyrood, where instead the SNP administration has overseen centralisation of power to Edinburgh.
A council’s ability to raise funds is greatly restricted. Scottish council taxes have been frozen then capped by successive SNP governments, while non-domestic rates are set centrally, collected locally, sent back to the centre then redistributed. Local authorities face criticisms from local people for challenges and cuts they have little power to address.
A quiet rebellion is now brewing among the SNP’s civic chiefs. Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey was the first to break ranks, challenging then Scottish government’s culture secretary Fiona Hyslop in 2018 over the capital’s desire for a tourism tax that would add £1 to hotels’ guest bills. In 2019, the Scottish government caved in, and announced it would allow councils to impose tourism taxes and also workplace car-parking levies, though these changes have yet to come to fruition.
This was seen as a start, but it still denies local government meaningful fiscal freedom. At the SNP’s annual conference at the weekend, McVey came back for more, putting forward a motion calling for councils to be allowed “local flexibilities”, warning they relied “too heavily” on annual budgets from Holyrood. New central government initiatives such as expanded childcare are passed to councils but are not fully funded, and therefore eat into core budgets.
McVey said the party needed to “lean into one of the thornier issues facing us – that of local government finance. We need to do more to connect the link between revenue and expenditure, to help improve accountability, to give councils a more permissive environment where revenues can better reflect their economies and so they can better invest in our communities.”
The SNP are the dominant party in Scotland’s town halls, with control of 16 of the 32 local authorities – although because of the proportional voting system they operate either in coalition or as minority administrations. The party’s most treasured possession is Glasgow, for so long the foundation of Labour’s Scottish hegemony. Aitken runs a minority administration and is preparing for next year’s council elections.
When I interviewed Aitken last week for my think tank Reform Scotland, she called for local authorities to be given a general fiscal power, which would allow them the freedom to tax and levy according to local priorities, and be accountable at the ballot box.
“I’m often held accountable for things I have no power over, but people think I do,” said Aitken. “A general fiscal power for local government is what’s needed rather than bit by bit. Edinburgh’s desperate to have a tourism tax, as is the Highlands. It’ll work really well for them. Places like Dumfries and Galloway might want a forestry tax, which is no use to Glasgow but could work really well for them. That’s the whole point of local government – that we get to do what suits us locally.”
She argues that Glasgow would benefit from greater control over transport – including the right to impose a congestion charge on those driving into the city centre – and also the ability to tax land banking and blight which does so much damage to the city’s efforts at economic modernisation and its aesthetic reputation. These powers “would be a real driver for economic and social transformation,” said Aitken. “You want to use local taxation to stop people doing the things you don’t want them to do and conversely to encourage people to do the things you do want them to do.”
I understand that Kate Forbes, Scotland’s secretary for finance and the economy, is “sympathetic” to increased powers for councils, though not all her colleagues share that view. The SNP is often accused of hoarding power centrally so that the opposition parties can’t use control of local government to create new national narratives.
Ultimately, though, you can’t run every community in Scotland, with their vastly different challenges and priorities, from Edinburgh. The stiff limits placed on Scottish councils are an international anomaly and act to prevent rather than stimulate local innovation and accountability. If the nation’s most powerful civic leaders are prepared to take a stand, it will be difficult for Sturgeon to face them down. November might be a good time to make some noie.