Lesley Riddoch: Genuinely local system a long way off

Argyll and Bute hold council meetings during the day because it takes so long for people to reach its Lochgilphead HQ. Picture: Craig Borland
Argyll and Bute hold council meetings during the day because it takes so long for people to reach its Lochgilphead HQ. Picture: Craig Borland
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THE Local Government Boundary Commission plans should be stopped until after proper debate, says Lesley Riddoch

Is the SNP – or indeed any mainstream Scottish party – serious about breaking up Europe’s largest councils and devolving power to Scotland’s communities? Despite warm words, and mention of local government reform in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government, you’d have to wonder.

Last week the Local Government Boundary Commission produced a report that will make the difficult business of democracy in some parts of rural Scotland almost impossible.

But despite widespread criticism, it will doubtless be rubber-stamped by the Scottish Parliament unless MSPs decide to represent the interests of local people not party whips or the Holyrood timetable.

The Boundary Commission review was hardly covered by the national press – why bother when the net change is just two fewer wards and four fewer councillors across Scotland and the Commission’s admirable aim is the restoration of parity in the ratio of councillors to electors?

The only wee snag has been unintended, anti-democratic and apparently unforeseeable outcomes. Some of the new wards are enormous and mean councillors must use ferries (time-consuming and weather dependent) to reach every part of their new super-sized wards, some of which also split natural communities.

There’s worry that all these problems may further deter folk from standing as candidates in the 2017 local elections and (ironically) increase costs as mileage and the number of overnight stays rise.

Take Argyll and Bute as an example. The Commission recommends that part of the Cowal peninsula is merged with the neighbouring island of Bute to form a single council ward. Sure – why not? Hardly anyone lives there and there’s a year-round ferry. Sorted.

Meanwhile, the southern part of Oban is being separated from the town and merged into the ward which includes the council headquarters in Lochgilphead, an hour’s drive away. Neighbouring Ardrishaig will now be in a different ward to Lochgilphead despite centuries-long human connections between the two (and connected school and postal systems) but the entire length of the Crinan Canal will be one ward – suggesting boundaries that suit administrators rather than local people.

The previous structure of three wards each producing three councillors elected by Single Transferable Vote will become two enormous wards each producing four councillors. This gets rid of one councillor (saving £16k) and will be marginally more representative of votes cast – just a shame the miserably low average turnout (38 per cent) gives a hollow ring to any claims for enhanced representation.

It’s a similar story across Scotland. Highland Council will have six fewer members, and the Western Isles four fewer, whilst some city areas acquire more and Orkney and Shetland remain the same.

Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson has described the changes – due to kick in before next May’s local elections – as “undemocratic and damaging” and has accused the commission of ignoring critical feedback during its long consultation process.

“When last discussed at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, just about every local authority was against what the commission was proposing. We asked for the process to be put on ice until after the local elections. It’s not the loss of councillors, it’s the loss of democratic representation.

“For example, the most demanding ward – central Inverness – is losing a councillor, so the often delicate and difficult workload on those remaining will be substantially increased. In Caithness, they’re ignoring natural communities and just dividing the county in half.”

From the perspective of a distant planner it may make some kind of sense. But to locals like veteran Rothesay councillor Isobel Strong – it’s crazy.

“Councillors are obliged to attend Community Council meetings so if all four councillors come from Bute it will be almost 
impossible to attend evening meetings without a dash to the last Colintraive Ferry at 9pm.

“I fear communities won’t feel represented by someone who lives such a long way away. Commission members should come and travel the routes involved to see whether they would do this job in the depths of winter when ferries are cancelled because of storms.”

In many ways though, the Boundary Commission is hardly to blame for making the job of local councillors even more pressurized, remote and unappealing. The main problem – the massive physical size of Scotland’s so-called “local” councils and its tiny councillor cohort – is not one they can fix.

Scotland currently has 32 councils and 1,223 councillors.

Norway (with roughly the same population) has 429 councils and 10,785 councillors. Compare our statistics with any modern European democracy – or even the rusty old ones. Our councillor cohort is ten times smaller while our councils are ten times larger than the European average. This is the problem the Scottish Government has not yet opted to tackle.

Thus Argyll and Bute has 31 councillors – but in Scotland it’s considered a big council. When you apply multi-member wards and proportional representation to such a ludicrously small councillor total across such a massive rural area, you get the current democratic shambles. It’s not the STV electoral system that’s at fault – it’s the massive size of councils and the tiny size of the councillor cohort.

Of course folk fear that more councillors will mean more expense. That’s partly because we pay councillors £16k per annum – not enough for a person of working age to get a mortgage but enough to trigger bean-counter complaints.

In the old days, councillors just reclaimed loss of earnings. But the massive size of some councils made it hard for folk to do council work in their spare time.

Argyll and Bute hold council meetings during the day because it takes so long for representatives to reach its Lochgilphead HQ. If Argyll and Bute was broken down into five or six smaller councils, meetings could be held at night as they are elsewhere and businesses might be happier to let staff nip off for the occasional daytime meeting as they do in much of the rest of Europe.

In short, big is not beautiful, more economical or more democratic when it comes to local democracy. And this underlying structural problem must be addressed first.

In a logical world, the Boundary Commission Review would be halted in its tracks and reviewed after a vigorous debate about a genuinely local government system for Scotland.

But is that coming along the tracks any time soon?