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May 30, 2023

Astonishing lack of interest

Writing in The Herald last week, former First Minister Jack McConnell expressed his astonishment at the lack of interest over the past 30 years in reversing the local government reforms introduced by Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang MP – a failed attempt to stem growing support for devolution. Other than a long since buried report from COSLA’s  Commission for Strengthening Local Democracy, there’s been barely a peep from anyone within local or national government to suggest an appetite for change. Reform Scotland, the think tank which Lord McConnell now chairs, believes it’s time that changed.

Jack McConnell, The Herald

IT has been quite a start to the life of the new Scottish Cabinet, and there are big challenges ahead. All of us who fought so hard to secure devolution for Scotland will be hoping that one outcome of recent developments will be an open debate about transparency and central control in government in Scotland. That is certainly required in St Andrews House and in Holyrood, but I for one hope that debate will include ideas that might energise and empower local government in every corner of our land.

Thirty years ago this year, then Secretary of State for Scotland Ian Lang MP decided that the best way to reverse the growing tide of support for strong devolution in Scotland was to reform local government instead.

Previously, following the publication of the Wheatley Report, a two-tier system of local authorities had been created, with strategic responsibilities handed to nine regional councils and more local services and statutory duties located with the district councils, of which they were 53. The furthermost islands – Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles – were granted single tier status.

While the new system certainly tided up the mishmash that had existed before and clarified many responsibilities and accountabilities, debate had raged through the 1980s between the benefits of the two-tier system and single tier authorities.

The cities eyed single tier status as an opportunity to compete with more successful models of city management elsewhere in the world; many felt that the districts and regions failed to cooperate too often; some felt the regions were too remote while others felt the districts were too parochial.

After the disaster of the poll tax and controversial government interventions in housing and schools management, calls for an independent review of local government in Scotland were growing. Lang broke the deadlock and following a consultation on the geographical boundaries, created a new single tier system with 32 authorities ranging from the City of Glasgow to smaller Clackmannanshire, East Renfrewshire and Moray.

Of course, his local government reorganisation did not reverse the increasing public desire for Home Rule within the UK. His attempt to save a small number of Tory authorities by establishing Labour authorities with larger populations alongside smaller authorities that could have voted Tory failed. By 1996 there were no Tory-controlled councils in Scotland and after the General Election in 1997, no Tory MPs either.

Scotland voted conclusively for devolution with tax varying powers, and in 1999 the wide-ranging powers of the new Scottish Parliament included legislative responsibility for local government. But, 30 years on from the publication of the original White Paper, it is really quite astonishing that the original decisions of Ian Lang have survived.

Almost everyone in Scotland might have assumed that such a controversial and unpopular reorganisation would have been a target for Labour, the Liberal-Democrats, and the SNP following the devolution of power in 1999. Instead, the original 32 authorities, large and small, remain in place with largely the same powers, similar statutory duties and largely unreformed local taxes in the form of council tax and business rates.

The two most significant changes to have happened in local government over these 30 years, proportional representation for local government elections when I was First Minister and the council tax freeze under the SNP, have left the basic structure unchanged.

Meanwhile, local leaders have struggled to cope or find a strong voice. And in economic development, the management of policing and other areas of Scottish government responsibility, centralisation rather than decentralisation has been the order of the day for just over a decade.

The Accounts Commission recently said Scotland’s local authorities must radically change how they operate in order to maintain and improve the services they offer. They expressed concern over specific services like adult care, housing, cultural provision and environmental protection. They called for a new deal between the Scottish government and councils, and Ministers seem to have opened the door to that. But radical change cannot just be additional grant finance.

The 30-year-old system of local government finance is way out of date for modern society and the modern economy. 16 years ago my successors promised to ‘abolish the council tax’ but it is still there.

Elected Mayors have transformed the debate between England’s forgotten north and the Whitehall/Westminster bubble, but Scotland has resisted that change. Holyrood leaders talk often about centralising more services at the national level, but are we really convinced the Scottish government will always do a better job than local elected leaders in policing, economic development or further education? And, as for the structure of 32 councils, surely it is time to move on from a scheme dreamt up by the last Conservative government before devolution, that had little public support at the time.

Scotland’s non-partisan think tank Reform Scotland believes that devolving power, encouraging innovation, responsibility and local partnerships by empowering local leaders is the best way to drive towards excellence in public services, create economic growth around the whole country and enhance accountability. If we want better local leaders, maybe we need to give them more to lead.

We want to kick off a big democratic conversation and we want to hear from a wide range of voices across Scotland.

So Reform Scotland are launching an open series on their website, inviting those with fresh ideas to send them in. We specifically want to hear proposals for decentralisation.What would be your top priority for new local government powers? Which change would best rebalance economic and taxation powers? Are there structural changes that would strengthen local leadership?

The blog series will welcome contributions from every corner of our land and from every perspective. To paraphrase Edwin Morgan: Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out! Open the doors and begin.

Lord Jack McConnell is the Chair of Reform Scotland and was MSP for Motherwell & Wishaw 1999-2011 and First Minister of Scotland 2001-2007