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February 26, 2024

Time for change

Irrespective of where you sit on the political spectrum, there seems to be a rock solid consensus that the current arrangements for Scotland’s governance are badly in need of reform. The unionist think tank, Our Scottish Future, recently proposed something akin to the regional authorities of yesteryear along with Andy Burnham-style elected mayors as one of many suggestions to reduce the centralisation of power in Edinburgh. With Democracy Matters closing today, a window of opportunity is opened. Hopefully those commentators who sit in the community corner such as Lesley Riddoch and Joyce McMillan will get a fair hearing too. 

Joyce MacMillan, The Scotsman

IT WAS back in October that the First Minister – knowingly or otherwise – struck the first blow in what could become an epic struggle over the future of local government in Scotland.

Trouble had been brewing for years, of course; hamstrung since 2010 by years of deepening austerity across the UK, the Scottish government, like Westminster, had increasingly passed on those cuts to local authorities, which faced ever more agonising decisions on which of their vital services they should cut or underfund.

On the closing day of last autumn’s SNP conference, though, the First Minister, in search of an upbeat finale, unexpectedly announced that for the year 2024-25, the Scottish Government would renew its Council Tax freeze, which had already been in place for most of the past decade. The decision was framed as a bold move to protect households in the cost of living crisis; but in truth, it was a bad idea, not least for the Scottish Government’s stated aim of promoting social justice, since a council tax freeze benefits the well off far more than average earners.

Worse than that, though, was the fact that the First Minister’s announcement plainly breached the spirit of a new deal between the Scottish Government and local authorities – the Verity House Agreement – reached just four months earlier, which promised a general presumption that power, including financial power, should in future remain with local authorities wherever possible. Even in the unlikely event that the Scottish Government was able to fund the full impact of the freeze, in other words, it was still removing an important power of decision from local authority level; and doing so without even the courtesy of consultation.

Now it is a sad truth that for local authorities in the UK, this kind of high-handed treatment by central government has become par for the course in this century. In Scotland, though, things were supposed to be different. At the time of the founding of the Scottish Parliament, 25 years ago, there was widespread agreement that the coming of devolution should offer an opportunity for reform of Scotland’s awkward local authority structure – 32 of them, too big to be truly local, and generally too small to be properly strategic – and for a radical modernisation of local council finances, with a view to the greater empowerment of communities across Scotland.

The failure of successive Scottish governments to act in this area is therefore one of the most significant disappointments of the devolution era, as one administration after another has avoided grasping the nettle to reform council tax, and none has even considered tackling the chronic democratic deficit of a nation that now has some of the largest basic local government units in the world, with an average population of 170,000, compared with a European norm of 10,000. The result is that many Scots have now all but forgotten what real local government looks like; and we certainly no longer seem to believe in the capacity of ordinary communities to make good decision for themselves – a lack of confidence which gradually undermines democracy itself, as it percolates upwards through the system.

Now, though, Scottish politics is beginning to wake up to the parlous state of our local authorities, and to debate some possible ways forward. This week, the unionist-leaning think tank Our Scottish Future published a paper called Rewiring Scotland, on the theme of local government renewal; and although it all but ignores the argument for smaller base units of local government, and a revitalisation of grassroots democracy, it does make a credible case for the reinstatement of something like Scotland’s old regional councils, in the form of “combined authorities” which can co-ordinate provision over big travel-to-work areas like Strathclyde and the Lothians.

The Report seems on less certain ground when advocating the importation to Scotland of more “City Deal” type financial arrangements on the UK model, of directly elected regional mayors or provosts, and of other top-down initiatives introduced in England in recent years, none of which seems really to have produced the strong sense of local empowerment, or of economic “levelling up”, that this report associates with them.

Yet some of the ideas explored in the Report are well worth discussing; and Our Scottish Future is not alone in this field. The doughty independence campaigner and journalist Lesley Riddoch, for example, has just launched a new non-party working group on the future of Scottish local government (I should say that I am a member), with a view to holding a major conference on the subject later this year; although here, the emphasis is more likely to be on wholesale reform of the system, to make space for more truly local voices.

However this debate evolves, though, it is clear that the current approach to funding and operating local government in Scotland has run out of road; and that in any case, it seriously conflicts with the principles laid down in 1999 for the good governance of Scotland. Nor is it likely, in the longer term, that these difficulties can be resolved without that massive reinvestment in our public realm, and the vital parts of it administered by local authorities, which both Labour and the Conservatives have now ruled out, and which the Scottish Government lacks the power to attempt, on anything but a marginal scale.

Yet still, in these bleak and short-sighted times – when the global scene moves from grim to grimmer, and our politics seems to rattle like a pinball through an ever more absurd series of hysterically polarised culture-wars – this is an area where at least some people are beginning to imagine, and seriously advocate for, a new and better future; and in a dark political winter, these are the green shoots of new thinking, and perhaps of new consensus, that we should welcome and nurture, in the effort to keep moving forward, even through the most dispiriting times.