Lesley Riddoch: Creeping centralisation is threatening local democracy in Scotland

Donald Trump, Brexit, Aleppo, recession and a wages slump.

Leonardo diCaprio with social entrepreneur Josh Littlejohn at Home, the new pay it forward restaurant. Picture: Getty Images

With world headlines like these it’s not surprising local difficulties are getting a lot less coverage. But travelling recently from Glasgow to Inverurie and from Inverness to Portsoy, I’ve heard the same complaints – about creeping centralisation.

It takes different guises in different places.

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At the Senscot social enterprise conference in Edinburgh, there was disquiet over a delay to the Scottish Government’s ten-year plan on procurement and social enterprise. Not for profit, locally-run businesses – like the Hollywood A-listers favoured Social Bite café – have been squeezed out of government and council contracts which are too big for small firms to tackle.

So the most successful ­contract-clinchers tend to be big multi-nationals because they look like safe bets – as one speaker wryly noted “no-one ever got fired for hiring IBM” – even though some big firms win contracts with zero-hour contracts and sub-Scottish Living Wage pay rates.

Senscot members have long encouraged the Scottish Government to break down large contracts, but instead they are being urged to scale up and form consortia to match the large commercial firms against whom they must compete. The government also wants to broaden the definition of “social enterprise”, prompting concerns that conventional firms with decent corporate responsibility statements may soon qualify. One delegate commented: “We’ll be up against Trump social enterprises next.” Why relax this definition? No-one knows.

Meanwhile, the disparate forces of the great and good across the Highlands were united in fury last week over rumours that local control of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) will be axed. A government review recommended a new single board to co-ordinate the work of HIE, Scottish Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council and last week Deputy First Minister John Swinney confirmed the Scottish Government backs that plan.

Ministers have been taken aback by the outraged response to this latest pruning exercise – but it could have been foreseen. The Highlands is a fiercely independent-minded area with strong memories of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIE’s successful and popular forerunner) which was established in 1965 to tackle rural unemployment and depopulation. Since then there has been a presumption for Highland opt-outs from Scotland-wide structures. It’s also an area reeling from the UK government’s recent boundary review which proposes a single Highland constituency the same size as Northern Ireland – all in the name of fairness and uniformity. So it’s no wonder any further erosion of local control is viewed as the last straw by many Highlanders.

It seems though that the Scottish Government has been merging and pruning so many operations in a low-key and relatively uncontested way, that no lively opposition was expected.

First came the removal of police, fire and rescue services from local control. Then came the merger of colleges amidst predictions that smaller campuses would end up closing. Now it’s thought Fife College closures in Kirkcaldy and Glenrothes are likely as a new super-campus is constructed in Dunfermline. Next came the creation of 14 health and social care partnerships with their attendant bureaucracies – Audit Scotland says they have not yet shifted spending from hospitals into community settings.

Then came the plan to top-slice council tax and hand cash directly to head-teachers – doubtless the first dreadful set of test results from primary schools in East Lothian helps explain why the Scottish Government wants more cash on the frontline fast. Then came Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech offering the equivalent of childcare vouchers to parents. More recent planned changes include shifting road maintenance from councils to Transport Scotland, bin collection from councils to individual towns and placing a requirement on councils to share other services.

Critics of over-large bureaucracies may be jumping for joy but this isn’t the oft-promised bonfire of the quangos – education, police, health and social care are the most important public services and councils are part of our democratic system. If there’s something quango-like or quasi-governmental about councils it’s because they are currently too big and remote and are crying out for reform – a point Cosla will hammer home next month when the councils’ umbrella body reconvenes its Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy to push again for a new structure of at least 100 small town and island councils. Now, of course cynics will suggest 100 councils means 100 directors of education earning £150,000 a pop – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Across Europe, bureaucracies are smaller and more modest than Scotland and whilst some services are shared by neighbouring councils, the town and island-sized local democracies which underpin them are never compromised.

Yet no political party bar the Greens backs the creation of more, truly local councils. So the existence of over-paid council executives in distant, elegantly-fitted council buildings will doubtless be used as justification for bypassing local democracy altogether and creating a myriad of random and casual arrangements with community groups instead. What’s wrong with that you may ask? Isn’t community control precisely what critics like myself have been advocating? Isn’t a flexible network of diverse local deals better than rigid, risk-averse council bureaucracy?

It’s quite possible this mongrel nation will successfully manage a mongrel pattern of local control with development trusts, housing associations, councils, community councils, social enterprises and tenants groups all “co-producing” services as the late Campbell Christie recommended in his seminal report of 2011. But there are big snags with a mixter-maxter approach.

Power devolved is power retained. In bypassing democratic structures, and making direct deals with local players, a small group of players in the Scottish Government is set to control even more aspects of everyday life.

Unsupported community groups quickly burn out; bypassing “local” councils leaves that problematic dimension unchanged; and the competitive “deal” approach – ­borrowed from English Tories – means smaller, poorer and less vocal communities get left behind.

There is no democracy in Europe without a tier of genuinely local, representative democracy yet that’s where Scotland seems to be heading thanks to a systematic process never explicitly listed in any SNP manifesto. The Scottish Government is merging, amalgamating and enlarging while active citizens are doing the opposite – trying to wrest more local control, autonomy, power and cash from central control.

Surely we need honest and open debate before this ad hoc process of centralisation goes much further?