Councils need more power, says think-tank – Courier

Courier, 30.6.08

Councils should be given powers and allowed to raise more of their own cash, a think-tank today demanded.

The independent think tank Reform Scotland published a new report, described by its chairman Ben Thomson as a “recipe for the revival of local democracy in Scotland.”

But Mr Thomson criticised the Scottish Government’s proposals to replace the council tax with a local income tax, the rate of which would be fixed centrally.

He said, “Taxes such as the Local Income Tax proposed by the Scottish Government that are centrally set, do nothing to give local authorities more control and therefore have no advantage over the current system while causing the usual difficulties of introducing a new tax system. “

In its Local Power report Reform Scotland called on the government to organise referenda in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, in a bid to discover if residents want to have their own directly elected leaders.

The think-tank claimed having mayors or provosts who are voted into office by locals could prove to be “a popular and effective form of local government.”

The group has also called for councils to be able to raise at least half of their income.

As part of this it argued that local authorities should be given control over setting business rates for their area.

Their report further recommended councils be given greater responsibility over their own elections – which could include deciding how many councillors should be voted in at each authority and which voting system should be used. Reform Scotland argued a survey it carried out showed councillors wanted more power.

A total of 175 councillors responded to the study, with 67% of them agreeing that councils did not have enough autonomy from the Scottish Government to run services while 80% believed local government needed more power to raise more of its own income.

Mr Thomson said, “By giving local authorities greater financial power, so that over time they raise the majority of their own revenues, they should become more responsive to the local communities they serve.”

He added, “A first step to greater financial accountability would be to return business rates to local control.”

Reform Scotland also called for a new constitutional relationship between the Scottish Government and councils, which should be set out clearly in legislation.

Mr Thomson said, “the new relationship between Holyrood and local government should be based on the principle of power being exercised at the lowest possible level with local authorities having much greater freedom to set their own tax levels so that they can raise the bulk of the their revenue.

“This, together with out other recommendations, is a recipe for the revival for local democracy in Scotland, bringing many benefits.”

The report stressed the important role councils have played in Scotland but claimed their role has been diminished over the last century, and particularly since the second world war.

However in contrast to this, other countries such as Sweden, France and Spain have decentralised power.