Scott Macnab: The SNP and local democracy impasse

John Swinney has instructed councils across Scotland not to cut teaching numbers. Picture: Alex Hewitt
John Swinney has instructed councils across Scotland not to cut teaching numbers. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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THE current row between councils and the SNP government over teacher numbers looks increasingly poised to spill over into the biggest war in a generation at the heart of civic Scotland.

It marks the breaking point among local authority leaders over the way they find policy dictated from Edinburgh, stifling the ability of elected officials to decide the best way to do things at a local level.

It has stemmed from the council tax freeze which is a growing bone of contention. As budgets are slashed and hundreds of millions are lost from schooling, social work departments and local leisure centres, more and more local authorities feel the freedom to raise a bit more money locally would help alleviate this. The truth, of course, is that the cost of subsidising the freeze – now in it’s eighth year – will top half a billion pounds this year. How to unlock this is a messy business no-one wants to touch. Many council insiders believe the council tax is a “busted flush.”

But which party will be brave enough to open this Pandora’s Box? The SNP is consulting on a possible local income tax, but there won’t be any movement on this before the end of the current Parliament.

It’s certainly easy for John Swinney to fight the battle on teacher numbers – like the council tax freeze – on the grounds that public opinion is with him. Which parent isn’t going to back the idea of teachers numbers being maintained in classrooms, even at the expense of other services?

But the wider concerns about the growing centralisation of public life under this SNP administration won’t go away so easily. The creation of the single national police force and fire service left many councillors feeling frozen out of the oversight role they play in these emergency services, while the leaders of Scotland’s islands have also been on manoeuvres demanding more control from Edinburgh.

Relations certainly weren’t helped recently when Nationalist backbencher Joan McAlpine, a former aide to Alex Salmond, launched an unprecedented attack on some councils accusing them of “failing their communities”.

It’s always difficult for the SNP – the party which wants power back from London – to be accused of hoarding power in Edinburgh. This has probably prompted council leaders in Scotland to feel they are in a strong position to spoil for a fight over this.

It wasn’t so long ago, in the recent referendum debate, that the SNP was pledging that the autonomy of councils would be enshrined in statute as part of the written constitution they had planned for an independent Scotland. Six months later the Nationalist administration is facing court action from councils for effectively undermining local democracy.

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