Andrew Wilson: Take risk with local government

REMEMBER the 1992 general election? I do. I was 21 and the election agent for the Motherwell South constituency. The remarkable and lovable Kay Ullrich was the candidate and we put our heart and soul into the campaign.

'The current structure of local government was created by a government we didnt elect to fit a situation that, now we have a parliament and government of our own, no longer exists.' Picture: Andrew O'Brien

She is the lady who a few years before had signed up someone called Nicola Sturgeon to the SNP one day at her home in Ayrshire. Whatever happened to that youngster? But to our tale. Ravenscraig was teetering as British Steel pledged to close it in favour of its plant in Wales. It needn’t have shut if we were taking the decision from a Scottish economic interest perspective. But so goes life in this small corner of the world.

Labour campaigned on a “Vote Labour to beat the Tories” ticket and said they would secure US buyers to save the plant. Motherwell and Wishaw voted Labour, the plant closed for good 11 weeks after election day. Scotland supported Labour, got the Tories and the once beating heart of my hometown is now green grass and development potential. But I digress once more.

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The Tories governed with absolute control over Scotland despite having only 15 per cent of Scottish MPs. Amazing looking back it’s hard to think that such things were possible. But they were. And it was this affront to democracy that led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, albeit with pretty much the same powers as Ian Lang enjoyed as Secretary of State for Scotland.

The reason I mention all of this is that in 1994 Lang piloted legislation that created the current system of local government in Scotland, the 32 unitary authorities replacing the old system of 49 districts, 9 regions and 3 islands councils.

This system was created in large part to axe the Labour powerbase of Strathclyde region. The Tories weren’t keen on local government as a rule as it presented a democratic challenge to their reforming zeal. The British centre has long hungered to control and struggled to let go.

I rehearse all of this to make what should be a glaringly obvious point, which is that the current structure of local government was created by a government we didn’t elect to fit a situation that, now we have a parliament and government of our own, no longer exists.

That in and of itself doesn’t make it wrong, of course. But it does increase the chances of it being sub-optimal. Very substantially.

One of the major themes in our public life just now is the thirst for proper empowerment of local communities, for the devolution of autonomy and control to flow beyond Holyrood. So easy to say, so hard to practically do. But do we must.

The role of our collective endeavours, whether defending our security or mending our potholes, needs to keep pace with modern realities. Despite having control over local democratic structures since 1999 nothing has changed. I understand why. With an election pretty much every other year it is very difficult to deliver fundamental reform.

It is also a beehive of an issue given the complexities of vested interest, economic reality and life critical services that are impacted. Better to leave be than risk downing the tree.

But for my money, it is now time for Scotland to take this challenge on.

This means taking risks, living with the reality that delivery of services will be different in different places and making the hard calls of what is best delivered centrally in a nation of just over 5 million souls, and what should be truly let go of to allow communities genuine control.

That control will always mean the ability to make a hash of it. But leaders will be accountable transparently for that, which longer term has to make the muscles stronger. It is remoteness from accountability that breeds complacency at whatever level we find it.

Because whatever else councils are they are often not local, government or democracy. Most of us live in communities where the council is not very local. It hardly governs because its financial hands are tied. And it’s not really that democratic because it apes a parliamentary system when we’d all rather have locally accountable people doing the job.

Who in our number can name their council leaders and committee chairs? I don’t say that to denigrate the individuals; some of the councillors I know are amongst the finest public servants we have. They need better roles and greater power over clearer responsibilities.

I know how hard the conundrum is. But the difficulty should entice us rather than dissuade. And getting 
anything done requires what the Tories never understood, which is the support of the broad spectrum of opinion which will make any reform sustainable and enduring rather than a short-term political football.

This will take a genuine gesture of engagement from the government to its opponents. “Bring it on,” as someone once said. «