Having reportedly told a group of Northern English MPs that devolution had been a “disaster”, he quickly clarified his comments, saying it was how devolved powers had been exercised that he was critical of.
As an ex-Mayor of London, the Prime Minister knows how effective devolved powers can be. It is how these powers are used that is the key, and the SNP in government have persisted in using this platform to try and break up the UK, rather than pass power down to local communities and businesses.
The Prime Minister’s theme of localism was picked up in a speech on Saturday to the Scottish Conservative conference by leader Douglas Ross, whose focus was on local councils and communities. If there is any sector in Scotland which has suffered under 13 years of SNP rule, it has been local government. Despite grand promises when the SNP first came to power about how they would be empowered – anyone remember the “historic concordat”? – the reality is councils have seen their budgets slashed and powers stripped away.
Between 2007 and 2019, the Scottish Government’s budget increased by 16 per cent in real terms. But the amount of money given to local councils from the centre increased by seven per cent in the same period. This has meant that councils have had to take tough decisions, cutting local services such as schools, roads and housing. It is ironic that the SNP, a party which regularly complains about power grabs from Holyrood to Westminster, is entirely happy to take both funding and powers away from Scottish councils.
Douglas Ross was clear it is time to reset the relationship between the Scottish government and local authorities. Starting with funding, there needs to be a fair settlement each year, not endless rounds of cuts. The Barnett Formula which governs the funding relationship between the UK and Scottish governments ensures Holyrood receives a set amount of funding each year based on UK spending. How that money is spent is entirely a matter for the Scottish government.
It is now time that councils were put on a similar footing. Fair funding for local authorities needs to be enshrined in law, with something similar to the Barnett Formula which states they will have a fair share of overall Scottish government spending, and the freedom to spend this as they wish with a minimum of interference from the centre.
Under the SNP, Scotland has become too centralised. The formation of a single police force is perhaps the best example of a public service that was once locally accountable, but now too often is seen as distant and remote from the communities it serves. In contrast, south of the Border we have seen an ambitious programme of devolution of power to the regions of England, with the creation of directly elected, and directly accountable, local mayors. Scotland is lagging far behind, and this needs to change.
The Scottish Conservatives will go into next year’s Holyrood election with an ambitious and radical programme to reinvigorate our councils, and empower local communities. It will be a refreshing contrast to the centralisation over the past 13 years.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife