SCOTLAND’S cities are preparing to take over major Whitehall powers on welfare and the economy as part of a significant increase in council powers being discussed with ministers.
The country’s top local government executive says today that cities like Glasgow should be handed control of efforts to get people off benefits and into work, rather than Westminster departments.
George Black, Glasgow’s chief executive – and the new chairman of the Society of Local Government Chief Executives (Solace) – says that Glasgow and Scotland’s other main cities are now in talks with UK and Scottish ministers to get the new “City Deals”, handing them substantial new powers.
He says the model could lead to councils being given “cash-back” from Westminster if they are found to have slashed the benefit bill and boosted tax revenue – which could avoid the need for a damaging rise in council tax.
Moves to step up the radical plan, which are backed by political leaders, are likely to begin immediately after the referendum on independence next autumn.
“If there wasn’t a referendum planned, then the type of change I’m talking about we would be doing right now. Understandably the political parties are concentrating on the referendum,” he said.
He added: “After next September that is going to be the big debate about the devolution of power. So whether it is a Yes or a No vote, it is about power coming right down not just to a council level but going down to local level.”
The moves are being discussed with UK and Scottish ministers, Black said. In England, significant new powers have already been handed to cities. A Scottish scheme could see city councils like Glasgow taking over welfare to work schemes in their area, he said.
Black said: “The Department for Work and Pensions would still be responsible for making welfare payments but what you would be doing is putting in place programmes that got people off [benefits] on the basis that you would get a share of that gain. At the moment as a city we want people off benefits for the greater good, but there’s no incentive to do that.”
Asked whether a city such as Glasgow should take control of the UK government’s work programme, designed to get the long-term jobless back into the labour market, he said: “Yes absolutely.”
On welfare to work efforts, he added: “What we are looking for is more input and control over that. It is like any national programme, it really doesn’t work in the areas that have the greatest need. It is designed for the whole of the country, not for Glasgow’s specific needs.”
The reform comes with local authorities facing an unprecedented cash squeeze in Scotland, with a further £2.2bn set to be sliced off Scotland’s block grant before 2018.
In the face of the cuts, council leaders have warned that the delivery of many “free” public services and a council tax freeze is unsustainable.
As well as Scotland’s five city regions – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness – the councils of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have also demanded greater freedom from Edinburgh and Westminster.
Black – who has run the country’s largest council since 2003 – said: “I don’t think anybody in local government believes that freezing the council tax is sustainable in the longer term. Even the Scottish Government has said it comes to a certain point in time.”
But he added: “We don’t need to have a reform of the council tax to have a more robust funding of local government. City Deals are taking a share of existing or future taxation, not necessarily introducing a new tax. The economy grows, the income tax to the Treasury, VAT, corporation tax goes up and you get a share of it locally. To my mind that is taxation coming to a local level which would supplement the council tax and charges.”
UK government sources last night said that City Deals in Scotland would be tailored for their individual needs.