Scotland’s local councils are, and have been for some time, grievously unhappy places. Their relationship with the Holyrood government is fractious and increasingly embittered. The cuts they are having to make to local services are infuriating voters. It is not their fault that they have little capacity to fix any of this.
It is now 30 years since the Tory Scottish secretary Ian Lang redesigned local government north of the border, converting the dual regional and district councils into unitary authorities. Launching his white paper, “Shaping the Future: the New Councils”, in 1993, he told the Commons that the new structure would “make local authorities more accountable and responsive to the people they serve and will help all authorities to achieve the standards already reached by the best… It offers local government in Scotland the prospect of a bright, dynamic future.”
Well, up to a point. The reform was, at least in part, an attempt to move on from the controversies of the poll tax, and to head off rising pressure for a Scottish Parliament. But while the arguments of three decades ago linger in the national consciousness, they have been superseded by more immediate problems.
Today’s councils range wildly in scale – from tiny Clackmannanshire, which covers 60 square miles, to the vast Highlands Council, which roams across nearly 10,000 square miles. The political climate in which they operate has changed radically, largely because that Scottish Parliament now exists and has control of them.
Holyrood is one of the most muscular sub-national political institutions on the planet, and greedily hoards power to itself. In the past decade it has centralised Scotland’s police and fire services into single, national forces. It has ruled councils with an iron hand, imposing council tax caps and freezes, and removing or adding responsibilities as it sees fit. Little of this has been done in a joined-up way, or with the best interests of local authorities at heart.
Scottish councils lack profile, vitality and functional flexibility. Not many Scottish voters could name their local council leader. It stands to reason that the challenges facing local representatives in Clackmannan are very different to those being tackled by their equivalents in the Highlands. Similarly, Glasgow’s issue with a declining retail industry is not the same as Aberdeen’s difficult but necessary transformation from an oil and gas economy to a renewables-based one. And yet each operates under the same structure and limitations, tightly overseen by ministers and mandarins in Edinburgh.
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It’s not that Holyrood has entirely ignored this situation – there have been cross-party committee reports demanding greater decentralisation and more control around local finance. But the thistle has not been grasped by government. Where small extensions of autonomy have been granted, such as Edinburgh Council’s right to impose a tourism tax, they have come only grudgingly.
There seems to be a terror in Bute House of greater local autonomy, of councils taking responsibility for the shape and performance of their funding mechanisms, of their local economies and of their relationship with the electorate. Is this due to a long-serving SNP government in Edinburgh that needs control of the narrative in order to advance the case for independence, and which therefore must put national identity first? Is it that anything that is first pioneered in England, such as directly elected mayors, must be dismissed? Or is local government reform simply regarded as too dull, too tough, not a vote-winner?
Whatever it is, anger is growing across party lines. In the most recent, fraught budget discussions, the president of Cosla (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) Shona Morrison, an SNP councillor, said that “the essential services councils deliver have not been prioritised by the Scottish government”.
My think tank Reform Scotland has long argued for the transfer of greater powers and responsibilities to a local level. Today, 23 May, we have launched a debate about what such change might look like. Our chairman, the former first minister Jack McConnell, writes in today’s Herald that “30 years on from the publication of the original white paper, it is really quite astonishing that the original decisions of Ian Lang have survived”, despite legislative control having long since passed to Holyrood. He adds that “local leaders have struggled to cope or find a strong voice. And in economic development, the management of policing and other areas of Scottish government responsibility, centralisation rather than decentralisation has been the order of the day for just over a decade.”
We’re not alone in challenging the status quo. Last week the Accounts Commission called for a “new deal” between the Scottish government and the nation’s 32 councils, which would enable more long-term planning and potentially allow new local taxes. The SNP has been promising to abolish council tax for its entire 16 years in office but has yet to do so.
As McConnell writes, “Elected mayors have transformed the debate between England’s forgotten north and the Whitehall/Westminster bubble, but Scotland has resisted that change. Holyrood leaders talk often about centralising more services at the national level, but are we really convinced the Scottish government will always do a better job than local elected leaders in policing, economic development or further education?”
This is an important and overdue debate, and it needs to accelerate. Since lockdown fundamentally changed the way many of us live, we spend more time at home and can perhaps see the problems in our communities more vividly than before. We may wonder why nothing much is being done about them. But for as long as Edinburgh politicians think they know best, and will not bend, nothing will or can be done.
[See also: Scotland won’t change until its government does]