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September 26, 2012

Centralist or decentralist?

The jury still seems to be out when it comes to judging how far the Scottish Government’s devolutionary credentials will carry. Conflicting messages abound. The centralisation of the police and fire services, reform of public procurement procedures and an acceptance of the least ‘local’ local government in Western Europe, sit alongside a commitment to introduce the most radical transfer of power since devolution by way of a Community Empowerment Bill.  Writing in the Scotsman, Gerry Hassan has an interesting take on all this.


Gerry Hassan, Scotsman

Scottish devolution was always going to produce centralisation, such as the Procurement Reform Bill, along with single police and fire forces, and at the same time the rhetoric of change seen in the current Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.

It is more than a year since the publication of the Christie Commission on public sector reform and as financial circumstances tighten, never has the time been more ripe for radical reform.

One approach is already on offer: the English marketisation route beloved by Andrew Lansley when he was Health Secretary; an alternative is the Scottish attitude of emphasising professional interests, integrated services and equity.

Yet while Scots professionals and politicians universally baulk at the idea of free schools, academies and foundation hospitals, they have to acknowledge that they tap into a wider public agenda than just that of marketisation and outsourcing.

Instead, they address people’s desire for more of a say, for personalisation, diversity and 
choice, if not for the full “choice” agenda of competition. And this is where the Left, across the UK, and the Scottish consensus need to respond more imaginatively and less cautiously.

There is a disconnect in Scotland over public services as well as our wider society. Only 22 per cent of respondents in the recent Scottish Household Survey said they felt that they could influence local decisions; 36 per cent wanted to have a greater involvement; and only 23 per cent thought their local council was good at listening.

Scots are going to have to prepare for what is going to be a public sector revolution. This is going to come about because of peoples’ greater demands for having a say, being treated with respect, growing expectations and demographic changes.

The old Fordist systems of centralisation and standardisation cannot deliver these. And yet for 
all the pretences, this is what still drives the dominant ethos in much of our public services. Old-fashioned, or new-style, social democracy 
thinks this way; trade union protection is the same: and even 
the apostles of the Right conform to this with their contracting-out culture and pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ) rules, creating new vested interests such as G4S, Atos and Serco, which are even more unaccountable than public services. 

Government already talks much of the language of decentralism and populism, of “participatory budgeting”, “community rights” and “community compulsory purchase” in the Community Empowerment Bill for example. It does so without the philosophy of centralisation being checked, or any emerging new set of decentralist values, which recognise the need for government to have the confidence to “let go”.

Scotland has been centralising for a long time. The 1940s welfare state advanced and ennobled most Scots lives, but it removed lots of local arrangements in the name of defeating ill-health and poverty. The 1973 local government reorganisation abolished a mosaic of ancient burghs and town councils while breaking the local link many communities had with their common good funds. 

Then the Tory gerrymandering of 1995 abolished the regional tier of local government, and halved the number of councils. The result is that whereas Scotland had more than 200 councils in the 1940s, today it has a mere 32, producing one of the most centralised, standardised countries in all Western Europe.

To put a halt to this isn’t to return to some patrician golden era of local government. What is required is a different path, philosophy and practice for public services and the public realm, rather than marketisation or the conservative inertia of much of present day Scotland.

A Self-Government Bill could be Scotland’s answer to free schools and academies, drawing on 1980s examples of decentralisation such as Walsall, Sheffield and the GLC.

Two options are available. The first is to offer a facilitative framework to local communities and public bodies to allow them to become self-governing; the second would be a comprehensive nationwide decentralisation.

The first carries with it objections that only the affluent, prosperous and confident middle classes will seize the “means of production”, so to speak. The second, that it would force places and organisations to govern themselves when they don’t currently have the capacity and resources to do so.

There are also practical considerations. One is that it would break apart systems of redistribution that central government has spent years developing. 

Yet we know that redistribution isn’t very effective, that middle class people gain most from public services, and all this would actually aid a culture of transparency and empowerment where we could “follow the money” through the system.

Another issue would be defining communities and public agencies that could become self-governing. There would be problems with boundaries, and a particular challenge for public bodies would concern governance and who could control them: workers, consumers or people living in their vicinity, or a mix of these groups.

This is a debate that has to be started in Scotland and the UK. Otherwise what we are effectively saying is that only champions of reform are the new vested interests. And that is a marker we should not easily give them. 

Scotland has barely begun its democratic revolution. We have a parliament and 129 MSPs but we have not begun to democratise society or blow the cobwebs and dust away from much of public Scotland.

Such an approach would be devolution morphing into self-government and self-determination. Strangely, it is an approach that the early days of both Labour and SNP have much sympathy with, the former with its guild socialist roots, and the latter, with its localism and suspicion of institutional Scotland.

Public services and local authorities have to be owned by “the public” and “the locale” and to do that we have to move away from a mix of centralisation and standardisation. 

One-size-fits-all isn’t good enough. Nor is a parliament shifting from London to Edinburgh enough democracy. Scotland needs a long overdue democratic revolution.