Beyond Centralised Power

The key argument in favour of devolution in 1999 was that we would be able to find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. It seems self-evident today that Scotland’s laws should be made not by British MPs in Westminster, but by MSPs in Scotland and that the House of Lords should have no say in such matters either. Arguments for greater devolution or indeed outright independence reflect an extension of the idea that power should reside as close as possible to the people and that decisions that can be made locally, should be. However, at the same time as Scotland is on a journey to greater autonomy as a nation, the opposite is happening at the local level.

Political and economic power in Scotland are becoming increasingly centralised. Local authorities are being asked to freeze the only source of finance they have any control over. The debate (in as much as there is one) is about reducing the number of local authorities and making them more “efficient”. The SNP manifesto had 41 sections. Not one talked about local government (to be fair, none of the other parties said very much about the topic either).

Yet if autonomy is to mean anything, the process must logically continue beyond the national level. Even with devolution, the UK is one of Europe’s most centralised states in Europe with very little autonomy at local government level. Around 80% of local government finance comes from the block grant from the Scottish government accounting for around one third of all devolved spending in Scotland.

The remaining 20% comes from business rates (the levels of which are centrally set and the tax itself centrally collected and redistributed) and the council tax (which is frozen). Scotland’s local authorities thus control virtually none of the revenue raised to finance their expenditure beyond library fines and parking charges. In Denmark, by contrast. local government raises over 60% of its revenue from local taxes and Sweden raises around 70%. Local government in Scotland is neither local not does it govern. It is basically little more than a centrally-funded and directed service delivery vehicle.

A recent House of Commons committee report  on the balance of power between central and local government in England noted that

The relationship between central and local government in England deviates from the European norm in at least three areas—the level of constitutional protection, the level of financial autonomy, and the level of central government intervention. All serve to tilt the balance of power towards the centre.” (para38)

Much the same could be said about this relationship in Scotland. The European norm that the Committee referred to is one where the basic unit of local government is genuinely local as the table illustrates.

Country            Number of municipalities              Median Population            Sq. km
France               36781                                                 380                                        11
Germany          12013                                                  6844                                      15
Spain                 8112                                                    564                                         35
Italy                   8100                                                   2343                                       22
Belgium            589                                                     11265                                      40
Norway             431                                                      4439                                       465
Sweden             290                                                     15039                                     672
Scotland           32                                                       115000                                    990

Of these seven major European countries, Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of local governance. Even Sweden, with nine million citizens spread over an area six times the size of Scotland, has a more localised system of government covering an average of two-thirds the land area and with a median population of 15,039 citizens compared with Scotland’s 115,000.

Were Scotland’s parishes to be resurrected as the basic unit of local government, then the number of Scottish municipalities would be 871 with an average population of 599 – in other words bang in the middle of the European norm.

The UK signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government  in June 1997. Over it’s 18 articles it highlights the importance of local government wherePublic responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen (Article 4(3)). Yet the trend since local government re-organisation in 1975 has been to concentrate power in fewer and fewer larger units – precisely the opposite of what the Charter advocates. In the course of this, most of Scotland’s 196 burghs have lost all of the governance they enjoyed for (in many cases) 500 years.

The lack of any real local governance represents not simply a democratic deficit but a problem of practical politics. Scotland is replete with a wide variety of definitions of community for a whole host of different purposes. Community Council areas may be the closest we come to a geography of community but coverage is patchy, boundaries unclear and powers non-existent.

Whenever a new initiative comes along (for example the recently announced Coastal Communities Fund), the first problem is almost always an agonised debate about how to define community. This is not a problem facing the coastal communities of Sirdal, Flekkefjord or Songdalen in the Norwegian county of Vest-Agder.

The lack of hard-wired governance has led to chaotic and incoherent policy and decision making at the local level. The opportunity costs in terms of efficiency in service delivery and design are quite probably far greater than the modest additional direct costs of having a real system of local government.

If you travel through Italy, France or Denmark and ask anybody which “community” they belong to they will tell you that they live in Y (a commune in the Somme with 89 inhabitants) or Saint Colombe or Rudersdal. You will struggle to find many people in Scotland who can name the parish they live in. This is thus also a problem of connectedness to place and the sense of who we are and who we share the future with. In a system of representative democracy, it is vital that the first link in the chain is local, rooted and resilient.

Today, proponents of the Scotland Bill, fiscal autonomy and independence all argue for greater revenue raising powers for the Scottish Parliament. Curiously, however, none of these arguments says anything about local government. Recently, Rob Gibson MSP launched a consultation in his Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency on how to decentralise services in local government. It is one of a very few signs that some new thinking is emerging about local governance.

Many European countries enshrine local govt in their constitution. In Germany, for example, Article 28(1) of the Basic Law guarantees the existence of elected councils for counties and municipalities. In any new constitutional settlement it is vital that the question of how we are governed at the local level is addressed. If it is not, then independence may simply mean the perpetuation of national elite rule.

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  1. Ard Righ says:

    Superb article.

    Reinstate the pre 1975 burghs. Exactly what does “Highland” mean? This is based on math applied as numbers of populace to a given area and not consolidating villages and communities that are profuse and remote. Curiously the same also goes for maps that have the larger scale for anything north of Fife and Glasgow, all stinks of Anglo-centricity.

    Decentralise the councils, de-politicise them and sack 80% of the top and middle heavy incompetence.

  2. vera says:

    How do you depoliticize the councils?

    1. Ard Righ says:

      Strong Leadership.

      We could start with meritocracy, or in blunt terms ridding ourselves of those incapable of responsibility and sound decision. If someone messes up, they are sacked. The obscene level of protocol that is the obvious waste of money -policy or protocol- only become bloated due to those it is meant to keep in check (those who cannot accord professionally in the real world). I am so angry about these impractical imbeciles that have only ever been behind a desk, making ill decisions that profoundly affect a very practical world, this has long reaching consequences that are often difficult to undo. This is further confirmed by the hire of external consultants, which says to the world we are incapable of making decisions as we have little or no experience. In the days of the corporation( Edinburgh), it was corrupt, however these were men from experienced professions with real world capability, standing fast and held the common wealth in high regard, being averse to spending when unnecessary. Look at the city this produced, one with the most incredible wealth of architecture on this island, now look at how the planning dept is trying to turn a stone city in to a brick dump fit for zombies.
      Don’t get me started about the scams, sorry, the trams.

  3. Debra Storr says:

    Hear, hear.
    And with the centralisation of police and fire and the absolute control of council revenue raising exerted by the Scottish Government for the past few years and now continuing for another 4 or five, the actual degree of centralisation in Scotland is greater than the simple numbers show. The tendency is to argue that efficiency requires economies of scale – but e.g. waste collection and recycling might be better organised at community level.

  4. Scottish republic says:

    It’s true indeed,what you’re saying and implying, that local government is distant from people.

    The example of France is interesting, every little town has a local elected mayor. Whether it is more responsive to local needs or not is debateable, but on balance yes.

    It’s absolutely true that the old county council (pre-largesse regional/local authority) era was generally considered to be better I believe than the current big government organisation.

    Incidentally, is everyone one premoderation?

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