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June 8, 2021

Mayoral accountability

The local council elections next year will be 15 years since the introduction of proportional representation and multi member wards. As a result, we’ve witnessed all shapes and sizes of coalition administrations cobbled together to run our 32 local authorities. While there are arguments to support coalition government – it tends to encourage more meaningful debate and less partisan decision making – it undoubtedly blurs the lines of democratic accountability.  From the electors perspective, who is actually in charge and responsible for the decisions made? Interesting paper from thinktank Reform Scotland calling for the introduction of directly elected Mayors.

Reform Scotland

To see full report – click here

All too often the constitutional debate in Scotland fixates on the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. However this overlooks the importanceof local government.

It is 27 years since local government reorganisation, 23 years since the Scotland Act, and 14 years since the first proportional council elections, yet there has been no review of the capabilities or structures of local government in Scotland.

Instead, power has been hoarded in Edinburgh rather than London. While greater powers have been devolved to Holyrood, there has been no devolution onwards to local government – arguably the reverse has happened through policies such as council tax caps.

In its centralising behaviour, the current Scottish Government is only continuing a trend that has existed for many years. As Andy Wightman MSP noted in the Policy Memorandum to his European Charter of Local Self- Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: “over the past century the status, powers and freedoms of local government have been slowly eroded and marginalised. Governments of all persuasions have tended to concentrate more executive and fiscal power to the centre.

It is past time for a major rethink, and for the genuine empowerment of Scotland’s councils. This should be a priority for the next government and Reform Scotland hopes this report can stimulate a much-needed debate. Reform Scotland first called for the devolution of greater tax powers to local government, as well as the introduction of mayors, in our 2008 report Local Power.

Today, we believe that local authorities must be given the tools and structures they need to help both the communities they serve and wider Scotland along the current, difficult road to economic recovery. Even before the damage wreaked by the Covid pandemic, our villages, towns and cities faced hugely varied challenges. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the economic impact of the virus is being felt differently around the country.

Different local and regional challenges require different local and regional solutions.

An executive directly-elected mayor working with a proportionally representative council offers an opportunity for less secrecy, more accountability and genuine scrutiny. However, mayors are not just about city management, but city representation.

We believe that a single, elected figurehead can make a real difference, providing greater accountability as well as enhanced popular focus on and understanding of local government. The lessons of the past year show that City and Metro Mayors in England were able to take effective action in securing help from the UK Government to deal with the challenging circumstances they were facing.

Greater powers alongside a strengthened identity can help create the muscular, empowered and accountable local authorities Scotland needs. It is clear that the Scottish Government sees merit in devolving greater fiscal power from Westminster to Edinburgh, and Reform Scotland agrees that this needs to happen. However, those arguments also apply to devolution from Holyrood to councils.

We shouldn’t accept a Holyrood-centric view of Scotland. To paraphrase Andy Burnham1, too many decisions are made without a proper understanding of the role our cities and regions play in producing th prosperity and innovation which will power Scotland’s future.

We therefore urge the Scottish Government to take the necessary steps to strengthen the vital role of local democracy in Scotland.