SNP accused of hoarding devo powers at Holyrood

David Mundell said the Scottish Budget has put the issue of local government in the spotlight. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
David Mundell said the Scottish Budget has put the issue of local government in the spotlight. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Scotland is in danger of being left behind the rest of the UK over devolution to cities and towns while the bulk of power is hoarded by ministers at Holyrood, David Mundell has warned.

The Conservative Scottish Secretary accused the Scottish Government of resisting the next stage of devolution and the transfer of economic powers to regions, which he said is already taking place south of the Border.

There is a revolution going on in local government across the rest of the UK, with local areas regaining power at an unprecedented rate

David Mundell

In a speech in Glasgow today, Mr Mundell is expected to set out what he believes is a radically different vision of how Scotland can be governed.

Under the plans, local authorities would have more control over areas such as health, transport and policing, while towns and villages could also take more control over their own affairs.

The Scottish Secretary will highlight finance secretary John Swinney’s Budget plans announced last week to cut 7.2 per cent from councils as an example of SNP ministers being “stuck in a 1990s time-warp of centralised Holyrood dominance”.

Local authority leaders warned Mr Swinney that the plans will be “catastrophic” for jobs and services in Scotland’s councils.

Writing in today’s Scotsman, Mr Mundell says First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants effectively to hold all new powers being devolved to Scotland and warns: “Bute House does not always know best.”

Mr Mundell writes about the “substantial new powers flowing from Westminster to Holyrood” as part of the Smith Commission process set up in the aftermath of last year’s independence referendum to deliver a new package of devolution.

He said committee chairman Lord Smith was “explicit” in his view that more powers should be transferred to local authorities, but claims the SNP has pulled back from this.

He writes: “Unfortunately, the Scottish Government does not seem to share this enthusiasm for giving away power. Quite the opposite. As we saw in last week’s Scottish Budget, local government seems to be viewed as a convenient cash cow, an easy way of avoiding unpopular decisions while making others, literally, pay the price.

“The experience of Police Scotland has shown very graphically that bigger is not always better. Bute House does not always know best.

“I believe the centralising tendency displayed by the Scottish Government is fighting against the tide of progress.”

Mr Mundell will today use his speech in Glasgow to claim that Mr Swinney’s decision to slash the amount spent on councils showed how the SNP wanted to centralise power in Edinburgh.

The finance secretary has allocated £10.3 billion for local government as part of his spending plans for 2016, which local government umbrella body Cosla said amounted to a £350 million cut.

Mr Mundell will argue that councils’ concerns about the future mean it is time for an “honest and frank” debate about the way forward.

He will say: “This is a good time to start that debate, in the week following a Scottish Budget which put local government in the spotlight.

“The choices which the Scottish Government have made are significant.

“Serious cuts to local authority budgets, and absolutely no new powers to raise their own funding. In fact the reverse, with the council tax freeze retained for a ninth consecutive year.

“Councils across Scotland are rightly concerned about the futures they face and it is about time we had an honest and frank debate about it.”

Mr Mundell is expected to say that Scotland is missing out on a UK “revolution” in transferring powers to lower tiers of government, and will highlight what he says are deals on regional devolution the UK government has struck with councils.

Mr Mundell will say that SNP ministers are standing in the way of similar arrangements for Scotland’s cities.

He will say: “There is a revolution going on in local government across the rest of the United Kingdom, with local areas regaining power and responsibility at an unprecedented rate. Scotland cannot afford to be left behind.

“On the crucial issue of breaking up the central government monolith, it’s now Westminster which is setting the pace and leading the way.

“The Northern Powerhouse is breaking new ground. And now that the Midlands Engine is gaining pace, with plans for a similar transfer of power to the Greater Birmingham area, as well as plans afoot in urban Yorkshire, suburban Hampshire and even rural Cornwall, the direction of travel for the rest of the UK is becoming crystal clear.

“There is now real risk that Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, and indeed the towns and counties of Scotland as a whole will be left behind – stuck in a 1990s time-warp of centralised, Holyrood-dominance.”

A spokesman for Mr Swinney said: “David Mundell has just spent months opposing amendments to the Scotland Bill, refusing Scotland job-creating powers, so his calls now have absolutely no credibility.

“The Scottish Government’s approach is one of partnership with local government – it is an approach that varies substantially from that taken in some other parts of the UK and is based on a shared vision of strengthened community planning, engagement and empowerment.

“But our approach to devolution does not stop at local authority level and through, for example, the Community Empowerment Act and Land Reform Bill, we want to help shift the balance of power more towards communities.

“Initiatives such as the Scottish Rural Parliament and the Cities Convention are also aimed at bringing people and policymakers together to enable better understanding, improved policy and greater empowerment of communities. These institutions, alongside action to ensure island communities benefit from the revenue of the Crown Estate, demonstrate our commitment to subsidiarity.”

An SNP spokesman also accused Mr Mundell of being “insincere and hypocritical”, adding: “Given that David Mundell couldn’t even deliver the Smith Commission’s ­proposals in full, people in Scotland are unlikely to take any lessons from the Tories on devolution.”