Abolish 13 Scottish councils to save local democracy, says think tank

THE NUMBER of local authorities in Scotland should be dramatically cut back with councils handed control of health services and policing, a report from a think tank has claimed.

Reform Scotland said that the number of councils should be cut from 32 to 19, a move that the think tank insisted would help deal with the “crisis in local democracy” that saw a turnout of less than 40 per cent in May’s local elections.

Under the “radical” shake-up some of Scotland’s largest local councils, such as Aberdeen, would be scrapped and merged with other big councils, such as Aberdeenshire and Moray, to create a Grampian regional authority for the North East.

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Reform Scotland claimed the move would lead to more powerful councils, with authorities taking over the role of the country’s 14 health boards that run hospitals and NHS services.

Councils would also take charge of some policing decisions, with Reform Scotland saying that local authorities would be represented within the new national police force being introduced by the SNP government to replace the existing eight regional police boards. The report, published today said the proposals were needed to “bring power closer” to taxpayers, as well as “reversing the trend of centralisation” the think tank insisted had gripped local councils.

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But senior Tory MSP Alex Johnstone, who represents the North East, warned such a shake-up would “destabilise and disrupt” services as well as leading to fears among taxpayers that they would be asked to buy cash-strapped councils out of debt.

He said: “Redrawing the local government map would open a political can of worms and destabilise many of the achievements already being made in sharing council and health services.

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“If we look at Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire for example, given that Aberdeen has had financial problems, merging the two councils would be seen by people in Aberdeenshire as a move to buy the city out of debt.

The “Renewing Local Government” report from Reform Scotland also proposed the election of mayors and the devolution of local taxes.

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The report said: “The local government elections in May 2012 should represent a wake-up call about the need to rejuvenate local democracy.

“We could change the structure of local government in Scotland, creating fewer councils, but making those councils stronger with more financial powers, as well as looking at ways in which more power could be devolved to community councils.”

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Ben Thomson, chairman of Reform Scotland, insisted that the package of reforms was needed to stop the “erosion of local democracy in Scotland.”

He said: “It is clear that, for whatever reason, a great number of people find the existence of 32 councils to be unpalatable.”

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Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie welcomed Reform’s proposals as he called for more powers for local authorities.

Mr Rennie said: “The Lib Dems fully support a move towards more powers for local authorities, as it’s better to make decisions at a local level.”