November 30, 2016
Crunch time looms for local government. The Accounts Commission predicts that within two years more than a third of our local authorities will run a budget deficit greater than their total reserves. If necessity is the mother of invention, a time of real churn lies ahead. COSLA is reconvening its Commission on Local Democracy in what looks like an attempt to inject real urgency into the ‘what-do-we-do-now’ discussions. Driven in part by the financial squeeze, and in part by frustration at a lack of progress, it looks like Scottish Government has plans of its own.
SNP ministers are planning a major assault on Scotland’s town halls, forcing councils to relinquish power over crucial areas of public life.
Under the confidential proposals, which are being discussed at the highest levels of government, neighbouring local authorities would have to merge some services. Councils would also have to devolve other functions down to local areas and hand over other roles to central government.
Bin collections could be handled by individual towns and responsibility for all roads could be handed to Transport Scotland.
The plans are being kept under wraps until after next year’s local authority elections, after which ministers hope there will be more SNP-run councils around the country, a political shift that could make the changes easier to implement.
The Times understands that ministers will legislate if necessary to force local authorities to accept the changes, aware that they are likely to face resistance from councils already reeling from a series of bruising battles with the government.
This fresh attack on local government represents the third front in what has become an all-out war between the Sturgeon administration and Scotland’s local authorities.
The SNP government has already announced plans to take power from local education authorities and hand it directly to schools and to head teachers.
Nicola Sturgeon announced in her main party conference speech this year that she would strip councils of the power to allocate childcare provision and instead give parents the right to decide when and where their children were looked after.
This third tranche of reforms could lead to a cull of some of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, but insiders stressed that this was not the aim of the reform package. A senior government source said: “Ever since devolution in 1999, the issue of local government has not been dealt with. We created an extra tier of government but we didn’t reform the existing layer of government which was already there.”
He added: “This is about power, not about boundaries. It is about where power lies and where it is best exercised, not about lines on a map.”
Under the Scottish government’s plans councils would be compelled to find ways of merging services and functions with other local authorities.
If savings can be made by merging the human resources departments of two neighbouring authorities, they will be expected to do that. The same will be expected in education, tourism and a number of other areas where good practice can be shared and money saved.
At the same time, councils will be expected to devolve power down to the lowest level possible. If bin collections can be handled at a town rather than a regional level, then councils will be required to make arrangements for that to happen.
Ministers are also understood to be looking at all the services that councils provide and might strip local authorities of responsibility for certain sectors such as roads if they feel these areas could be handled better centrally by a Scotland-wide body such as Transport Scotland.
The Scottish government wants to wait until the reforms to education and health have progressed sufficiently before ministers open up this new assault on local government. This would also leave time for the council elections next year to take place.
The source said: “There is no point embarking on this until we know the make-up of Scotland’s councils. We can’t plan our tactics on this until we know that.”
The council elections are due to take place in May next year and, with the SNP predicted to win more seats and more councils at Labour’s expense, this could pave the way for the council reform package that Ms Sturgeon wants to see.
A spokesman for the Scottish government confirmed that plans were being drawn up. “In this parliament we will introduce a bill that will refresh local democracy by giving more power to local communities,” he said. “We will review the roles and responsibilities of local authorities with an aim to transform our democratic landscape, protect and renew public services and refresh the relationship between citizens, communities and councils.”
David O’Neill, president of Cosla, the local government umbrella body, described the Scottish government plans as disappointing.
He agreed that reform was needed but said: “It is vitally important that this is done across the whole of the public sector and not simply one strand of it. We are all too aware that a proposed reorganisation of solely local government would not address the issues we are facing and would be costly and distracting.”
Local authority numbers
1,222 councillors in Scotland.
£16,893 is the part-time salary paid to each councillor in Scotland.
32 councils in Scotland.
600,000 people are resident in the council area of the City of Glasgow, the largest authority by population in Scotland.
20,000 people live in Orkney, the smallest council by population.
503,233 first preference were votes received by the SNP at the 2012 Scottish council elections.
There are four lord provosts in Scotland. Most councils have a provost or convener but Scotland’s biggest cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, all have a lord provost.
Changing the system
From 1890 to 1975 Scotland had county councils, with various parish and town councils below them.
Parish councils lost their powers in 1929, leading to the creation of district councils.
After 1975, Scotland was divided into a few large, regional authorities and smaller, district authorities.
The two-tier system was abolished in 1996 and Scotland got unitary authorities instead.
The creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999 brought calls to reform the system once again.
In 2007 the single transferable vote was introduced for council elections, but no administration has reduced the number of councils or restricted the functions of Scotland’s local authorities.