AT LAST. A leader of Scottish local government telling it as it is. Dave O’Neill, the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, spoke recently at the annual get-together of Scotland’s elected local councillors.
He argued that local government mattered and needs a stronger role in future. I agree. Last weekend I said the same in a different way, calling for home rule for Shetland. I oppose the removal of local powers and responsibilities. National government has a never-ending appetite for power.
When a centralising party led by clever people takes over, watch out. Local councils in Scotland today have no effective financial responsibility. That has been removed. So too has the direct budgetary control for fire and police. Colleges too used to be local. Now they must fit into a national structure. It’s dressed up as regional but it’s national. Since 2007, power has been exercised from the heart of Macwhitehall – St Andrew’s House in the heart of Scotland’s capital.
I say enough. Actually enough was some years back. Under a Lib/Lab coalition centralisation took place. I take my share of responsibility for that. But what was a trickle in a Highland burn has become a raging tsunami down the Firth of Forth. That is why the governance of the Northern Isles is on the agenda in Scotland’s endless debate about the constitution.
Today, we are finally to be told what the date will be for the independence referendum. Years of argument will finally come to a head in the autumn of 2014. Then maybe, just maybe, we can get on with a real discussion about the type of teaching we want in our schools and how to deliver the best healthcare but with declining budgets.
Many of these decisions are inherently local. Councils could become all-purpose public authorities. That doesn’t mean they should run everything. Far from it. But they can set out through active community planning what local people want and then challenge other bodies and organisations to deliver.
This approach where local people make decisions in their area can be many things. Devolution was not about powers coming from London to Edinburgh and then no further. The Calman proposals that became last year’s Scotland Act have devolved further responsibilities to Holyrood. But there’s no sign of further devolution from Edinburgh across the country.
After the SNP won in 2007, a historic concordat between central and local government across Scotland was signed amid great fanfare. It is certainly history now. It is never mentioned. But those who oppose centralisation now know that by setting out alternative options for governing different parts of Scotland, the nationalist cage can be well and truly rattled.
Keep rattling. We need more than a debate about London and Edinburgh. This needs to be about what happens in your street, town and island and who is truly responsible.
• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland