Decentralisation of power from Holyrood, full devolution of local taxes and directly elected mayors are among the proposals made by campaigners and politicians pushing for reforms to local government in Scotland.
Other plans to improve local democracy include giving councils powers to raise funds, long-term funding deals, local ownership of services, and quarterly public meetings between Scotland’s first minister and council leaders.
Critics of the status quo commented following a series of reports this week by The Herald and investigative website The Ferret, which highlighted major problems across local authority areas in Scotland.
They include drastic cuts to leisure services, street cleaning, and libraries, mismanagement of Common Good funds, and vast sums of money being paid to outsourcing firms and in interest to the UK Treasury by councils. We also revealed that female councillors have faced threats of violence and sexual harassment, and that one in three stepped down at the recent council election.
The Scottish Government – accused of centralising power in recent years – said in response to critics that it wants to devolve power to “more local levels” while pointing it launched a Local Governance Review with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to “ensure communities have greater control and influence” over decisions that affect them.
Scotland’s local government system has not changed in decades. Much of the power, funding and control is still firmly with central government, and critics calling for radical reform include Willie Sullivan, director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland (ERS Scotland). He said: “The Ferret and Herald’s important investigations have uncovered a host of worrying issues with the way our local democracy works. These issues are symptomatic of a wider problem with our local councils: those making key decisions are often too far removed from the communities they serve. This is why we need a radical refit of local democracy so that ordinary people have much more input into the decisions that affect them.
“Democracy should not be a once in a four or five-year event. Instead people should have sustained and meaningful input into the big decisions that affect their communities. There are a number of ways this can be achieved, such as by regular citizens assemblies selected by sortition, where residents do paid stints debating and feeding into council plans.
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, is currently writing a book on local democracy. He claimed the SNP has taken centralisation to “far greater levels than witnessed in the Thatcher years” – describing this as a “damning indictment” of the SNP’s record. Mitchell told The Ferret: “There is more expertise in local government and our communities than exists in the Scottish central government but much of Scottish Government operates from a top-down, uniformist starting point rather than work in partnership”.
Arguing that cuts imposed on local government exceed what the Scottish Government itself has experienced, Mitchell said councils have been “left in an invidious, approaching impossible, position” while “forced to make cuts and unpalatable choices”. He continued: “The Scottish Government is in this respect very British and far from being European or Scandinavian as ministers often pretend. Local government needs to be empowered fiscally and with the removal of many central controls that have served us so very badly.”
His views on decentralising power were echoed by Alison Payne, research director at Reform Scotland. She said that too often the constitutional debate in Scotland fixates on the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood, which “overlooks the importance” of local government.
“Even at the recent council elections, most of the main parties chose to focus their messaging not on local issues, but on the constitution,” Payne said. “This does a great disservice to an important part of Scottish democracy.”
Pointing out that it is nearly three decades since local government reorganisation, Payne said that despite the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and subsequent devolution of additional powers to it, there has been no review of the capabilities or structures of local government. “Indeed, if anything, more power has been reserved to Holyrood,” Payne said, adding that with the next local elections years away, now is the time to start the process of “much needed” reform.
This would require a “better balance of powers” between Holyrood and local government, she added, enabling local authorities to raise more of the money they spend, while improving accountability and transparency. “Three policies which Reform Scotland believes would help with this challenge are the full devolution of local taxes, directly elected mayors and a quarterly public meeting between the First Minister and those running our councils,” Payne argued.
Dr Craig Dalzell, head of policy and research at the think tank Common Weal, said Scotland should follow the example of other European nations. “The core problem with local democracy in Scotland is that we don’t have one. Scotland deserves the kind of municipal-level government that almost all of our peer nations in Europe consider to be ‘normal’.”
Dalzell said that reorganisation would bring more focussed local decision-making and make it easier for more people to engage with politics affecting their area. But he added this would require “real shifting of power” from political centres.
According to Angus Hardie, of the Scottish Community Alliance, the Scottish Government and councils should “stop blaming each other for problems” and try to resolve tensions. The situation could be improved, Hardie argued, if there was a “genuine commitment” to pass power, resources and decision making downwards to the level that was best suited to make these decisions. “It’s not the silver bullet but it would certainly go a long way to resolving these tensions. But that will never happen until the different spheres of governance in this country begin to trust one another and focus on how to achieve the best outcomes for our communities rather than how to cling on to whatever vestiges of power they think they still have.”
The Scottish Lib Dems’ local government spokesperson Peter Barrett claimed the SNP has “systematically undermined local government” for 15 years by cutting funding. He said the Scottish Government needs to put in place “long term funding deals” that recognise the important role played by local authorities, rather than simply funding them from year to year. Councils should also be able to borrow to invest, Barret argued, and be given more powers to raise funds, as well as greater authority over how this money is used.
Ariane Burgess MSP, of the Scottish Greens, also called for decentralisation of powers. She said: “Councils shouldn’t be remote bodies that impose inflexible top-down solutions. They should be genuinely rooted in our communities, listening to people, and being truly responsive and representative.
“That is why we believe in localised decision making. That means participatory democracy and budgeting, giving councils more powers to raise money and encouraging local ownership of the services that we all rely on.”
Put reform back on the agenda
In 2019, a report suggested Scotland had too many councils and almost half of them should be scrapped to save money. The number of local authorities should be reduced from 32 to 17, according to a study by the University of Sheffield. The authors hoped that it would put council boundary reform back on the political agenda but that has not been the case.
In 2012, for example, Reform Scotland called for the number of councils to be reduced to 19 but it has since changed its position, saying it no longer advocates such a move. “There seems to have been a greater acceptance now in the principle of the need to devolve more control to local authorities and enable them to better address their differing needs and circumstances,” explained Payne.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Local authorities play a crucial role and the Scottish Government looks forward to continuing to work in partnership with them in the delivery of essential services for people – including education, social care, housing, and transport.
“We are also committed to working with COSLA to agree a New Deal for Local Government in Scotland, aiming to balance greater flexibility over local financial arrangements with improved accountability for delivering outcomes.”
Councillor Shona Morrison, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said that an “empowered and properly funded local government” is the best way to address both the “democratic deficit and social and economic problems” faced by communities across Scotland.
She added: “COSLA’s position on the importance of local democracy has been stated consistently over recent years, as well as the case for increased investment and funding flexibility. However, years of real term cuts, set to continue for the next 4 years at least, mean that the scope to address local choice and priorities is being continually eroded, whilst the requirement to deliver heavily directed Scottish Government policies is increasing.”
Are Councils Working? is an investigation by The Ferret, co-published with The Herald, exploring local issues, services, communities and more.
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Illustration by Davide Peter Kerr.