SCOTLAND is the most centralised nation in Europe with local councils stripped of key powers by government and “distant” powerful authorities, a new report has stated.
Council bosses backed a major shake-up of Scottish democracy with a call for more tax powers to be handed to local authorities in the paper published today.
Local democracy “has been gradually dismantled over the last 50 years” from over 400 elected local governments in 1946 to 32 today, the Cosla report said.
SNP ministers controversially merged Scotland’s eight regional fire services into one as well as creating a single police force, with the scrapping of the local council dominated regional police and fire authorities.
The erosion of powers held by councils in Scotland is “significantly greater than elsewhere internationally” the commission stated as it called for responsibility over key policy areas to be clawed back by local authorities.
Voters are “losing trust and confidence” in democracy commission chairman David O’Neill warned as the group’s report called for more powers to be devolved from Holyrood and Westminster to councils.
Communities have “very limited local tax capacity and a high dependency on grants from national government”, and only “a radical and fundamental overhaul” of local democracy in Scotland will resolve the issue, the report said.
The warning about the erosion of powers came after the Scottish government launched plans to devolve powers to the Highlands and Islands in an independent Scotland.
Skills Development Scotland
Scottish Labour has backed the devolution of Skills Development Scotland’s responsibilities to councils, while the Lib Dems support handing more financial powers to local authorities.
Scotland would be “fairer, wealthier and healthier” if communities had more say on key issues such as spending on services in their area, the authors of the commission’s paper said.
Frontline services are also more likely to face cuts if key responsibilities are removed from councils, with powerful and remote bodies able to impose unpopular decisions on people, the authors of the report warned.
The report said: “Larger and more geographically distant bodies could find it easier to cut local services.
“The average Scottish local authority represents the interests of around 165,000 people across 2,500 square kilometres, compared with around 5,000 people across 50 square kilometres in the EU.
“A long-term centralist trend in Scotland and the UK has reduced the number of local democratic institutions, increased their scale and reduced their powers and functions.”
Scottish independence referendum
Commission chairman Mr O’Neill, who is also Cosla president, called for a new devolution settlement for local councils irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.
He said: “Whatever the result of the Scottish independence referendum, we’ve got a huge opportunity to think about the kind of country that we want to live in, and make sure that there is a lasting local legacy for local communities in Scotland.”
Opposition parties today backed the call for a transfer in powers from Holyrood to local councils.
Scottish Labour’s local government spokeswoman Sarah Boyack said: “Since the SNP became the Scottish Government, local authorities have been systematically stripped of power and left with the challenge of providing more services with a flat cash settlement in order for the SNP to keep their promise of a council tax freeze.”
Scottish Conservative local government spokesman Cameron Buchanan said: “Scotland is far too centralised, and it’s time we handed powers back to the local authorities.”
However, Scotland’s local government minister Derek Mackay said independence would lead to greater devolution to councils, although he stated that the government was already looking at transferring some powers.
He said: “We are already taking steps to give communities greater opportunities to influence and take control of their own future through the Community Empowerment bill, and our ground-breaking discussions of the Island Areas Ministerial Working Group and our work as part of the Scottish Cities Alliance recognise the different needs of all parts of Scotland.
“With the full powers of independence we will have the best prospect of properly empowering Scottish communities in the full range of decisions that affect them.”