Scott Macnab: For real devolution look to England

More powerful councils in England could embolden Scotland's town hall chiefs to demand a fairer deal from Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
More powerful councils in England could embolden Scotland's town hall chiefs to demand a fairer deal from Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
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A major criticism of the SNP government has been its instinct for centralising power in Edinburgh. Recent years have seen the creation of a national police force, merging together the old regional constabularies, and a Scotland-wide fire service.

And the iron fist ministers have brandished in their dealings with local councils has been another source of consternation among town hall leaders.

For the party which stands for taking back power from London, the charge that it wants to hoard control for itself in Edinburgh is one that jars.

It’s a headache for Nicola Sturgeon that could intensify as she watches the Conservative government south of the Border forging ahead with radical proposals to hand sweeping new controls to local authorities.

George Osborne has set out ambitions to create a “Northern Powerhouse” with Manchester the focus of the major transfer of controls away from London. It has been hailed as “revolution” in the way England is governed and could infuse areas like Hull, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham with a new sense of political strength and identity.

Local councils are to gain control of business rates, not only to set the level, but to keep the proceeds. This is an area which has long been a source of consternation in Scotland, but the Scottish Government says it has no plans to change the system north of the Border.

Perhaps more significant are the broad-ranging controls that English cities are to get in areas like housing, transport, planning and policing under legislation which will be set out later this month.

Greater Manchester, which will take on the powers when electing a new mayor in just two years, will even get control of health spending.

This is a significant level of autonomy from Westminster. Could it be that these English cities start to accumulate the influence and clout to rival that of the Scottish Parliament in recent decades?

Is that too hard to imagine – particularly if an elected mayor comes along with the kind of popular charisma which Alex Salmond deployed to such effect in Scotland? They could certainly come to rival Scotland in areas like inward investment, but the impact could be politically significant if they start agitating over the relatively higher levels of public spending enjoyed north of the Border.

It contrasts with a situation in Scotland where town hall chiefs have found themselves largely neutered by the SNP government.

When council leaders called for the freedom to raise the council tax to help ease the chronic funding cuts they face, John Swinney threatened to chop their budgets to the tune of millions of pounds.

And when town hall leaders wanted to reduce teacher numbers and look at other ways of measuring attainment, they were threatened with more funding cuts before falling into line. Hard-pressed parents will no doubt be quite happy for their tax bills to remain low and for schools to be properly resourced.

But it does raise questions over the SNP’s commitment to local democracy. Only when the Scotland’s islands councils started agitating during the referendum campaign for more powers, including the prospect of Shetland keeping more oil revenues, was swift action forthcoming.

Legislation is now in the pipeline which could provide islands with more powers and stronger representation at Holyrood.

It remains to be seen if the emergence of stronger, more powerful mayors and councils in England embolden Scotland’s town hall chiefs to demand a fairer deal from Edinburgh.