Leaders: Locals battle with centralising inertia

MP David Mundell.
MP David Mundell.
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SNP stands accused of failing to pass its recently acquired powers down the line and holding the reins of power in tight control

‘Power to the people” has been a popular slogan down the ages. But how much power exactly? And to which group of people?

Looking at developments across the UK, it is not only Scotland where the tide of devolution is running strongly. The belief that decisions are best made by people in their own nations and regions is compelling. The impetus behind the “Northern Powerhouse” speaks to a conviction that devolution of power from central government has compelling economic as well as political benefits.

Scotland has been in the vanguard of this advance and it is to Scotland that many English regions now look to advance their argument for more local autonomy.

This is the context in which Scottish Secretary David Mundell mounts his critique in The Scotsman today of the SNP administration. It is not enough, he argues, that the extra powers secured for Scotland should simply reside in Edinburgh. The concentration of devolved powers to a highly centralised administration, and in particular to the First Minister’s office in Bute House, runs against a tide of localism now coursing through the veins of the wider UK.

It could be said that in Scotland old habits die hard. Highly centralised administration was the hallmark of successive Labour secretaries of state from the days of Tom Johnston and the redoubtable Willie Ross, champions both of central planning.

But the Conservatives, too, have had a strong centralising streak, notably under Margaret Thatcher, who sought to curb the powers of high-spending Left wing local authorities.

We have moved on from those days – but only a little. The central issue remains the control of finance. The need to bear down on government debt and deficit has meant tough constraints on local government spending. Mr Mundell has highlighted the extent to which the SNP administration has imposed big cuts on local authorities, leaving local councils with all too little discretion in deciding how and where money is spent.

On the revenue side, too, there are major questions. Earlier this month Scotland’s cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform concluded that the current council tax system in Scotland “must end”. It considered three options. But it shrank from recommending any particular one. Each poses major issues of fairness, equity, responsiveness and ease of administration.

Similar conundrums surround proposals to give local councils more power over business rates. With 32 local authorities, many businesses fear a deeply confusing and capricious patchwork of different tax rates. Encouraging “localism” while not giving carte blanche to yet more local government bureaucracy, council aggrandisement and ratepayer cost is and is a most contentious area of local government reform.

Mr Mundell’s critique is widely shared and easy to mount. Altogether less easy is the task of squaring localism and autonomy with fairness, prudent financial control and equity for the taxpayer.

What goes around comes around

For 50 years we have chopped our rail network to a shadow of what it was. Lines were torn up or abandoned in the conviction that no-one would ever want to use them again.

Enter the resurgence of local railways and here in Scotland, thanks to those Harry Potter films, to the revival of the West Highland line. Voted the world’s most scenic train journey, it is now ScotRail’s fastest growing route.

A doubling of trains on the West Highland line between Glasgow, Oban, Fort William and Mallaig helped boost passenger numbers by nearly 14 per cent to 454,000 in 2014-15. Friends of the West Highland Line say it is now used more than at any time since the 1950s. And little wonder, as Wanderlust magazine twice voted it “best line” for its views of Scotland’s lochs and mountains.

ScotRail now hopes to attract yet more passengers when it upgrades carriages to become “scenic trains”, with seats better aligned to windows, tourist information and improved catering, from 2018.  It cannot be long before the old and much-loved glass-topped viewing carriages make a comeback.

We have never lost our love of trains, their majestic puffing through the countryside and the deeply pleasing paradox of excitement and relaxation that such rail travel offered.

Now, with ever increasing tourist numbers and a keen desire to experience the best that Scotland can offer by way of visual enchantment, those abandoned rail routes are making a comeback. And across the country what used to be considered as the hobby of a few enthusiasts has now become a network of more than 200 “heritage” trains – and their number is growing. Truly what goes round, comes round.