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March 23, 2011

Scrap Scotland’s local councils

Broadcaster Lesley Riddoch convened a meeting in Scottish Parliament last week to consider alternative models of local government – such as exist in Norway and Sweden.  Scotland’s own system was described as being dysfunctional and more centralised than anywhere else in Europe. So if local government here is no longer fit for purpose, what’s to become of it? Should we reform the system, with smaller, more local councils? Or perhaps, as Martin Sime of SCVO suggests, do away with them all together

Martin Sime, of SCVO, asks whether abolishing local government would increase accountability and reduce bureaucracy.

Maybe I’ve just been over-exposed to it recently, but I can’t be the only one who’s fed up with the sterile debate between local and national governance. Who knows whether there should be one fire service or eight police uniforms? Boundaries between health and care for people who use services don’t exist so why is there an endless discussion about which tier of government should orchestrate services? It’s obvious to me that we are over-governed and waste too much energy on this stuff. It’s not just the task in hand but the need to engage with each other that soaks up time, energy and money. We’ve built a whole ’community planning‘ infrastructure – a real misnomer – to orchestrate this public agency ‘partnership’ at a local level. There are interminable complexities of process and ideological debates about accountability which sustain this elaboration and which produce… almost nothing of use. In China, Scotland as a whole probably wouldn’t qualify as a single tier of government let alone the three we’ve got –
we’d simply be too small.

Well, the party’s over. A lot of the noise just now is the various vested interests trying to preserve their role at the expense of others. But these really ought to be the last cries of a dying regime. We’ve run out of money and there are some really pressing needs to be met – real people needing real help. My idea is to abolish local government. With one less layer we can have a more rational conversation about what we need, how to make our public services more accountable and how to plan for a sustainable future. We’d save a tidy sum too in not having 32 council tax bureaucracies and all the other paraphernalia of this so-called localism. And we could, at a stroke, close down the whole conference industry set up to discuss (but never to deliver) shared services. Of course we’d need new ways for people to express their views about the things that matter to them in their communities. But, like Norway and Finland, these could be very small and more concerned with engagement than delivery.  And we’d need to beef up the accountability processes for major services such as health and education – but we need to do that anyway.

Subsidiarity – taking decisions at the lowest possible level – was a buzzword of the 1990s but we’ve learned a lot since then. As the flawed Scotland Bill process shows us, power devolved is really power retained. We can call our politicians to account if we can get a clearer sight of who is responsible for what.

Extract from Thinking Differently – a collection of think pieces published by SCVO