OVER the past half century, despite devolution, Scotland has become one of the most centralised countries in the world.
Reform Scotland\’s view, as set out in our latest report Local Power is that we need to urgently reverse this trend. A fundamental shift of power from the centre down to local communities is required because it will help deliver better public services in tune with the needs and priorities of local people.
The centralisation of power in Scotland has occurred in a number of ways. The role of local authorities has been diminished by removing certain powers and transferring them to unelected quangos. At the same time, the financial freedom of councils has been curtailed dramatically.
We have now reached a position where local authorities in Scotland currently have total control over only 9 per cent of their tax income stream, raised through council tax – one of the lowest levels in Europe. In contrast, Norway\’s much smaller municipalities raise 43 per cent of their income through local taxes.
We all know that "he who pays the piper, calls the tune," so it is no surprise that the centre has been able to determine, to a large extent, the role of local government through an array of targets, guidelines and controls.
Does this matter? Yes, it certainly does because it has a direct bearing on the quality of the public services on which we all depend. Other countries such as Sweden, France and Spain have not followed us down this centralising path. Instead, over recent decades they have decentralised power because they believe it is the key to better public services and a more cohesive society.
Centralisation has not even delivered its stated objective – to remove regional discrepancies in services. For example, 89 per cent of S4 pupils achieve five or more Standard Grades at General Level or better in East Dunbartonshire, compared with only 66 per cent in Glasgow.
The attempt to impose standards and solutions from the centre has also led to new problems. It has encouraged uniformity and so discouraged the innovation necessary to raise standards for all; it has necessitated the creation of an enormous bureaucracy to set, monitor and administer the vast array of targets and directives; and it has undermined faith in our political system because as power becomes more remote, people feel less able to shape their own communities.
We need to learn the lessons from other countries and restore our own tradition of local self-government. Reform Scotland believes that this should start with a new constitutional relationship, set out in legislation, between the Scottish Government and local government.
The SNP government should be applauded for recognising the need for such a new relationship. However, its "Concordat" falls some way short of what is required. While the reduction in ring-fenced funding for specific purposes is to be welcomed, a large part of the agreement was aimed at ensuring that councils froze council tax. Negotiation may be preferable to spending caps on councils, but the end result is the same – the centre is exerting control over local taxation. As such, this does nothing to restore local accountability.
We need to go much further and enable local authorities to take action in the interests of their communities unless specifically prohibited from doing so by a wider authority. This is the principle adopted in many European countries and the one underpinning the relationship between Westminster and Holyrood. Legislation should enshrine this along with the principle of subsiduary. This asserts that tasks are carried out at the lowest administrative level possible as a means of ensuring that decisions are taken as close as possible to those they affect.
This approach would mean that, as a general rule, responsibility for providing public services would be in the hands of local authorities, free from central policy-making and heavy-handed monitoring. How they provided these services would be up to them which would encourage diversity rather than uniformity and enable them to discover what works best for their area.
To be truly accountable, local government must have greater control over its own tax revenue and the aim should be that councils raise the majority of their own revenue. The best way to achieve this is by moving away from councils having control over only one form of taxation, as specified by the Scottish Government, and to give them control over a broader range of taxes. As a first step towards this greater financial accountability, councils should be given back control over business rates. This would have the additional benefit of encouraging greater co-operation between councils and businesses in order to develop the economy because authorities would receive the higher revenues generated by a more vibrant local economy.
Greater autonomy and financial responsibility are the two fundamentals of local government reform. They are certainly more important than worrying about the exact number of councils in Scotland. Effective councils providing a wide range of services come in all shapes and sizes. What is most important is that they reflect established community identities. In this respect, there is certainly an argument for devolving power down to a more local level because Scotland\’s lowest executive tier of government is far more remote than that of other countries. Local people should have a right to decide in a local referendum if they wish to see greater power exercised at the community level.
All of this is a recipe for a radical decentralisation of power. Above all, the diversity that would follow from a renewed commitment to localism will enable progress right across society because it is only by trying different experiments in many different places that we discover new ways of doing things and identify those that work.
Geoff Mawdsley is director of Reform Scotland.