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October 31, 2018

Reorganisation by algorithm

A new report from a group of academics at Sheffield University have made what they hope will be a useful contribution to the debate about the future of local democracy in Scotland. The report suggests that roughly half of the current local authorities should be scrapped. The methodology they appear to have used in order to come to this conclusion is data from commuters and an algorithm that gathers together those areas that have the strongest ties. Surely there must be more to drawing boundary lines than commuter ‘desire lines’ and fancy algorithms?


The Times

Scotland has too many councils and almost half of them should be scrapped to save money, a report has suggested.

The number of local authorities should be reduced from 32 to 17, according to an academic paper. The study, by the University of Sheffield, supported the creation of Greater Glasgow, which would be Britain’s largest local authority and combine Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire and East and West Dunbartonshire with the city of Glasgow.

It also suggested that the Scottish capital could be united with East Lothian, West Lothian and Midlothian to form Edinburgh and the Lothians, while Aberdeen city and Aberdeenshire could become Grampian. Highland, Moray, Dumfries and Galloway and Borders would stay, while North and South Lanarkshire would merge and the Tayside region would be reborn as Dundee, Perth and Angus. Island authorities would remain intact but Stirling, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire would be united into Forth Valley, while North, South and East Ayrshire become a single authority.

The Scottish government has pledged to refresh local democracy, which has remained unchanged since the old regional structure was abolished in 1996.

Alasdair Rae, a professor in urban studies who co-wrote the paper, hoped that it would put council boundary reform back on the political agenda. He and his colleague, Ruth Hamilton, used commuting data and an algorithm, that groups areas with the strongest ties, to produce a new local government map of Scotland.

“Over the years there have been calls to reform council boundaries and give authorities a greater say in decisions made at Holyrood,” Professor Rae said. “But so far nothing has been done and the 32 council areas remain. We accept that from a government point of view it’s a politically difficult issue. However, it’s far too important to ignore.”

In the absence of action by politicians, he and Dr Hamilton thought it would be useful to make their own suggestions. “If things are going to change we need to have fresh ideas,” he said. “Despite the political risk associated with boundary reform, other governments across the world have grasped this nettle because it can lead to more efficient governance and cut costs. Recent regional rejigs in Denmark and France show it can be done and we believe an algorithmic approach can at the very least contribute to this debate.”

However, a spokesman for Cosla, the body which represents Scotland’s councils, said: “This study is the opposite to what we hear from communities in Scotland. Local government is a legitimate sphere of government and as such wants the powers and financial levers to respond to the specific needs in their communities. They do not need an arbitrary increase in size and a reduction in influence.”

In 2012, Reform Scotland, an independent think tank, called for the number of councils to be reduced to 19. Scottish Borders council has taken steps towards the becoming the first local authority in Scotland to merge with its local NHS board. Last month Shona Haslem, council leader, said: “Rising costs and decreasing funding mean we have to think of new ways to protect our public services.”

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “We have no plans to change council boundaries. The local governance review asks public service partners to propose alternative decision-making arrangements at council level or more regionally.”