Scott Macnab: stripping back of local democracy a paradox of devolution

When Nicola Sturgeon unveiled the written constitution for an independent Scotland three years ago, the role of local democracy and the country's councils was at the heart of the tome.

Picture: TSPL

This came at the height of the referendum campaign and Ms Sturgeon, then the Deputy First Minister, set out a proposed legislative framework for the fledgling nation which included a ban on nuclear weapons and a Holyrood veto on future Scottish military action.

It also pledged that the “existence and status” of local government would be protected along with the entitlement of Scots to public services which secures their “dignity and self-respect”.

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Local council chiefs at the time struggled to square this deferential language with the salami slicing of their powers and influence during previous decades under governments of all hues. And as political parties appeal for the votes in tomorrow’s council elections, that glaring contradiction at the heart of civic Scotland is no closer to being resolved: After nearly two decades of sweeping new powers coming back to Scotland through devolution, why has none of this found its way down to local communities in town halls?

The very notion of local democracy in Scotland is even contentious. Scotland’s councils are huge monoliths compared with the rest of Europe where decisions affecting everyday lives are taken far closer to home. In France the average local government covers 15 square kilometres. In Denmark, a nation roughly the same size as Scotland, the figure is 440 km2. Councils in Scotland are almost six times bigger than even this, covering 2,449 km2.

“In anybody’s else’s terms Scottish local democracy is not local at all,” concluded a flagship Commission on Local Democracy in Scotland which reported in the build-up to the 2014 referendum.

Of course it wasn’t always the case. There was a time when local councils played a prolific and pivotal role in Scottish public life. There were more than 200 local authorities in the 1970s with local leaders, like Labour’s Charlie Gray in Strathclyde, in the vanguard of opposition to the Thatcher government in the 1980s.

Since then the number of councils has been chopped back to just 32 single tier authorities. It has been dubbed a “super-sizing” of Scotland’s system of local government and, worryingly, has led to a growing gap in citizens’ participation in the local democratic process.

And what powers councils do have in Scotland has been significantly stripped away. Town halls are nominally responsible for education, but when some council leaders suggested a cut in teacher numbers a couple of years ago as budgets fell, they were effectively told “No” by Scottish ministers, or they would face even more brutal cuts to their funding from Edinburgh.

Moves are also afoot to create new “educational regions” in Scotland, bringing together school clusters as part of a drive to tackle the attainment gap. But this has a prompted fears that education could be taken out of council hands altogether.

For a decade council leaders were also effectively stripped of the power to raise finance locally, through a council tax freeze imposed from the centre. This may have been great news for householders, especially after the soaring increases which Scots suffered during the years of Labour hegemony. But local democracy suffered. The think tank Reform Scotland recently called for councils to be given the freedom to raise council tax and business rates by as much as they like as part of a push to “rejuvenate” local democracy.

If voters don’t then like how the cash is being spent, they will feel far more inclined to remove local politicians just like they do at Holyrood or Westminster. In Scotland, councils raise just 18 per cent of their overall budgets in local taxes, compared with an average of about 40 per cent across Europe.

Similarly, councillors had the lead role in the former joint boards which served as the governance bodies for the old regional police and fire services before the creation of Police Scotland three years ago. Chief Constables faced regular grillings before these bodies to explain delays in response times in particular areas and spikes in crime elsewhere. Compare this with the problems which have been encountered by the Scottish Police Authority in performing a similar role in recent years on a nationwide basis.

So will tomorrow’s vote change any of this?

All parties claim they are the champions of local services and engaging with communities. But what are they actually doing to bring about his long-awaited “rejuvenation” of local democracy?

Well, there are some encouraging pointers in the Greens’ manifesto which calls for greater community involvement in decisions about local spending, as well as real powers for community councils, citizens assemblies, street committees and other public bodies to make decisions about public spending. The Greens are even suggesting these bodies, along with citizen juries, could make decisions on local planning and local service provision.

The Tories see a need to address the way councils have been frozen out of devolution and back a shift towards a Northern powerhouse-style move towards directly elected provosts for cities and councils. Greater powers over planning, taxation and capital spending would also be devolved to town halls under the Tory plans. Ruth Davidson’s manifesto also states that the Scottish Government should “not turn a blind eye to structural reform” of the system.

In fairness to the SNP, they are proposing that a minimum of 1 per cent of each council’s budget – running into the millions for most authorities – would be given directly to communities for them to choose how this cash is spent at a grassroots level.

And proposals first set out by John Swinney two years ago to allow councils to keep a share of income tax raised locally have also found their way into the SNP’s manifesto.

After all the rancour and divisions of the constitutional power battles between Westminster and Holyrood, perhaps a shift towards real power resting in the lap of councils could go some way to defusing the tensions which have marked Scottish political debate in recent years.