Devolution was never supposed to stop at Holyrood, but it has. This is why Reform Scotland’s reports on a range of issues from healthcare to policing, and from finance to planning, have argued that more power needs to be devolved down to our local authorities and beyond to make policies more responsive to local needs and priorities as well as making service delivery more accountable and transparent.
However, in this work we have faced a major stumbling block. Every time we argued for local authorities to be given far greater powers, the argument we heard in response was that this can’t be done with 32 local authorities. In what amounted to an indirect argument for centralisation, those against local devolution said it would be too messy; that 32 bodies with significant power represented too many cooks of the democratic broth. For example, when the proposals for a single police force were unveiled, we argued that representatives from each local authority should sit on the new Scottish Policing Authority. Although politicians acknowledged that policing is largely a local function, they appeared to be happy to remove local government’s role simply because you couldn’t have a committee of 32.
So it has become clear to us that holding on to the notion of 32 is, in practice, incompatible with the notion of true localism. Although we refute the argument that Scotland has too many local authorities, supported by the evidence from many other European countries, we believe that there is a clear need for a more pragmatic approach. We are concerned at what appears to be a growing willingness to remove powers from local authorities. So, faced with a choice between fewer, stronger councils and more weak ones, our view is clear.
We are kick-starting this debate today, with the launch of our latest paper “Renewing Local Government”. Our report suggests, as a starting point for debate, the creation of 19 new local authorities in Scotland through the amalgamation of some councils within existing boundaries. Crucially, we are not simply substituting 19 councils for the current 32. Alongside the reduction in the number of councils would be a massive transfer of both financial and expenditure powers.
The three most visible public services – education, health and policing – should largely be delivered at local authority level. In the case of education, this already happens. Our proposals will replicate this system in healthcare and policing.
So, we are proposing scrapping the existing 14 health boards and passing the delivery of health services to these new local authorities. Most non-executive lay members of the boards are appointed by Scottish Ministers, though a councillor from each of the local authorities covered also sits as a non-executive lay member. Pilot elections took place in NHS Dumfries & Galloway and NHS Fife Health Board areas to allow direct elections to the health boards, but turnout was very low – 22.6 per cent in Dumfries and Galloway and 13.9 per cent in Fife. So we believe that instead of having a parallel tier of government, whether it is directly-elected or appointed health boards, the new councils should take on board the responsibilities and expenditure of the health boards. This integration also makes sense given the many overlapping areas of responsibility between existing health boards and councils.
Local authorities having a greater responsibility for the delivery of healthcare is not unusual, indeed many European countries have a far more localised health system including Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which we highlight in our report.
And completing the set, we believe that the eight existing police boards should be scrapped and the power given to “the new 19”. This is a particularly pertinent time to do this – we disagree with the move towards a single Scottish police force, and our new local authority proposal would inject more, not less, local accountability into the policing system.
In addition to administrative power over the three vital public services, we would like to see local authorities given far greater financial powers, enabling them to be responsible for far more of the money they spend. In order to achieve this goal, we believe these 19 new local authorities should have full control over local taxation – currently the centrally-controlled and locally-collected council tax and non-domestic rates. This means councils decide on the type and level of tax, and stand and fall on that decision. This enables local authorities to devise taxes that reflect their local circumstances and priorities rather than ideas about what is best for communities devised at Holyrood.
We believe this radical step forward addresses the very real need to renew local government in Scotland. The local election in May 2012, with its disappointing turnout, should represent a watershed from whence we make a choice. We can continue to be a centralised country. Everything can be dictated from Edinburgh to try to ensure that services are delivered in exactly the same way, regardless of local needs and circumstances.
Or we can have a localised Scotland, where local authorities have the freedom and the financial powers to make decisions for their areas based on local priorities, though this will mean services and financial burdens are approached differently across the country.
Our politicians must be honest with us. If they believe in the centralised approach, they must say so, rather than centralising by stealth whilst not making it clear about the implications for local government, as has been the case with the police. We have always advocated localism, believing that services are most effectively delivered as close to the user as possible reflecting the different priorities and circumstances they face. As a result, in all areas of policy we have advocated a greater role for local authorities, and indeed communities.
This is our vision. We know some politicians support it. We know others don’t. It’s time to have the debate.
• Ben Thomson is chairman of independent think-tank Reform Scotland, which releases its latest report “Renewing Local Government” today.