Analysis: Council reform in Scotland should be high on the agenda in 2023

The reform of local government isn’t the most glamorous of political topics.

It doesn’t have the emotional pull of the constitutional argument that dominates Scotland’s public debate, or the grand narrative of right versus left. It is unlikely to lead to blazing rows at festive parties.

But as we enter 2023, the state of councils across Scotland could fast become a pressing issue.

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Cosla, the local government body, has issued dire warnings about the impact of the draft Scottish Budget, which was published on December 15. Services will now be at “absolute breaking point”, it said, and some may have to stop altogether.

A review by Gordon Brown said 'consideration' should be given to directly elected mayors in ScotlandA review by Gordon Brown said 'consideration' should be given to directly elected mayors in Scotland
A review by Gordon Brown said 'consideration' should be given to directly elected mayors in Scotland

"The reality of the situation is that, yet again, the essential services councils deliver have not been prioritised by the Scottish Government,” said Cosla president Shona Morrison, an SNP councillor.

Over recent years, councils have seen a real terms reduction in their funding from Scottish ministers, while the Government’s own budget has increased. Ministers argue this extra cash is passed on to the health service. Meanwhile, a greater proportion of council funding is now ring-fenced for specific purposes, such as national childcare commitments.

A new report by the think tank Reform Scotland, aimed at sparking debate, argues all councils should be headed by directly elected mayors who would meet the First Minister on a regular basis. It says this would allow for the “voices and experiences of Scotland’s local areas to be heard nationally”.

The recommendation comes hot on the heels of a major constitutional review by former prime minister Gordon Brown, which said “consideration should be given” to directly elected mayors.

It is easy to see the appeal of such a move in boosting the profile of local authorities and encouraging greater engagement with the democratic process. But on its own it would solve little.

Reform Scotland also highlighted the need for tax reform. The SNP has long committed to scrapping and replacing the “unfair” council tax, and the Scottish Greens, their partners in government, agree. It is high time something was actually done about this, even if there are different views on what comes next.

Amid the spiralling cost-of-living crisis, there will be no shortage of problems for politicians to grapple with in 2023. But local government reform should be high on the agenda.



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