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October 30, 2023

Time for real reform

Over the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament there have been various attempts to describe how local and national governments should work together in the country’s best interests. The Concordat in 2007 was hailed as a ‘partnership of equals in the governance of Scotland’. It didn’t take long before that floundered over a disagreement on teacher numbers. Most recently, the Verity House Agreement which was intended to initiate a new relationship of mutual respect of both local and national government’s democratic mandate. Now lying in tatters after the FM’s SNP conference announcement. Joyce MacMillan despairs in her Scotsman column.

Joyce MacMillan, The Scotsman

As the climate crisis intensifies, and the political architecture of the post-war world continues to collapse around us, one thing we can safely say about the 21st century – with its politics of continuous crisis management – is that we do not live in an age of reform.

Reform, in its true sense, means planned, deliberate and hopeful change towards the greater wellbeing and empowerment of every citizen; and so it’s perhaps not surprising that in these apocalyptic times, the practice of real reform – as opposed to deregulatory pseudo-reform – has withered on the political vine.

Yet despite the times, it seems almost beyond dispute that there is one area of Scottish public life now crying out for major reform; and that is Scottish local government, battered and bruised by a generation of broken promises, stripped of most of its autonomous powers, increasingly treated as an inadequately-funded delivery arm of central government, and hit by a further blow last week, when Humza Yousaf used his SNP conference speech to announce that after a short period of relaxation since 2021, when councils were briefly allowed to vary local council tax rates, the Scottish Government would once again be imposing a council tax freeze.

Now it is – as many have pointed out – difficult to count the ways in which this announcement was an exceptionally bad idea. In the first place, it was made on the basis of no consultation at all, with the Scottish Cabinet, with parliament, with local authorities, or with the SNP’s partners in government the Scottish Greens; and demonstrates just how far the worst top-down practices of an abysmal era of Westminster governance have come to influence the Scottish Government.

Secondly, the abrupt announcement represented a blatant breach of the Verity House Agreement, concluded between local authorities and the Scottish Government only four months ago, which envisaged a new era of close joint working between government and local authorities.

Then finally, of course, it was potentially a bad idea for all those who depend on vital local authority services. Freedom to vary council tax at least enables councils to enter into a conversation with local communities about what they are willing to pay to keep those services going. The council tax freeze, by contrast, shuts down that local conversation, and once again places those services at the mercy of hard-pressed central government funding.

The SNP’s repeated failures in dealing with local government, though, are only part of a wider picture, the roots of which lie in poorly-conceived changes dating back to the 1960s; and, of course, in the failure of all parties, once in power at national level, to treat local government with the respect it deserves and needs. This is certainly a subject on which neither of Scotland’s major opposition parties has a better record than that of the SNP. Conservative “austerity” has starved all UK local authorities of vital resources for more than a decade, since 2010. And only three weeks ago, during the Rutherglen by-election, Scottish Labour was deploring the end of the council tax freeze as a cruel new cost for cash-strapped voters; before suddenly, after the freeze was reimposed, discovering previously unplumbed depths of concern about its unfair and regressive nature.

The whole subject of local authority finance has become a mere political football, in other words; and meanwhile, the underlying structure of our local government only adds to its continuing weakness. Scotland’s last major local government reform – the abolition of the regions, in 1996 – left us with a fractured and messy single-tier pattern of 32 local authorities which, as many have observed, are mostly neither big enough to act as strategic regional authorities, nor small enough to be considered truly local.

The local government changes of the 1970s, in particular, often simply destroyed local government at the town and county levels that meant most to people in community terms. Scotland is full of ancient burghs of great dignity – from St. Andrews and Arbroath to Falkirk and Kelso – which now, absurdly, have no town councils of their own. And the final blow is that the poor structure and resourcing of local authorities in Scotland, over two generations, has reduced public interest in and respect for this level of government to the point where a positive restructuring of it, necessarily involving some investment, would not be a popular cause.Yet in the whole field of Scottish governance, there has probably never been a stronger case for a root-and-branch, well worked out reform of an entire system – one conducted not by the Scottish Government, but at the level of a fully-fledged Royal or National Commission, at a substantial arm’s length from day-to-day politics. As the Scottish Government’s current consultation on more power for local communities acknowledges in its title, Democracy Matters; and democracy at local level arguably matters most of all, in developing a truly democratic culture, in empowering ordinary citizens to help shape their own future, and in generating national policy that enjoys widespread support, when it comes to effective implementation.What is needed, though, is not yet more tinkering with an increasingly broken system, but a fundamental re-think, which looks towards the richer and more multi-layered local government landscape of some of our north European neighbours, and entrenches the powers and rights of local government in our constitution.Nor should the current absence of widespread public support for such reform be used as an excuse. Whether Scotland becomes independent or not, the times now demand a new settlement that brings our towns, villages, rural areas and cities back to life as political actors with real power, and real agency in shaping their own future and that of the country; and the sooner we begin a process of real reform, towards that goal, the brighter that future is likely to be.