Reform Scotland

“Party promises: the view of the experts” – Sunday Times

This article by Alison Payne appeared in the Sunday Times

A few weeks ago Reform Scotland published a collection of policy ideas designed to help bring about long-term economic growth and effective public services.

Summarising its 17 reports published since 2008, its central theme is the need to devolve responsibility, not just through increased financial powers to the Scottish Parliament and local authorities, but to individuals and communities.

Reform Scotland has used this work to grade the main parties’ manifesto commitments ahead of the Scottish elections on May 5th.  Its report card is not an assessment of all the policies of the main political parties, but a reflection of how well they meet Reform Scotland’s prescription to improve the country’s long term prospects.

This has been a long and disappointing campaign: it is about who can promise the most, without offering any overarching long term solutions either to the economic situation or the challenges facing public services.

The current fiscal structure of the Scottish Parliament is partly to blame. Holyrood’s reliance on the block grant limits its accountability.  It provides little incentive for politicians to come up withideas to boost economic growth or improve public services. That is because however poorly the economy performs, the money still rolls in via the block grant. If the economy did grow faster the benefits would accrue to the Chancellor at Westminster and not the Scottish Government.

The Liberal Democrats deserve credit for at least identifying in their introduction that centralised control is the root problem, in particular stating many politicians believe that the best decisions made about public services are those made from behind the ministerial desk. They are wrong. Public services are at their most efficient and effective when they are run locally, by local people, to meet local needs. However, many of their policies fail to live up to this ambitious start.

This aside, there are reasons to be optimistic with a number of policies, from all parties, taking steps in the right direction and echoing recommendations made by Reform Scotland: Labour’s expansion of vocational education; Conservative policies for free schools and tuition fees; the Lib Dem and Green position on localism and the SNP’s call to strengthen the Scotland Bill. In addition, all parties make encouraging  pledges on transport, digital infrastructure and expansion of the third sector.

However, one of the biggest areas of disappointment is local government, where four of the five parties are effectively calling for further centralisation of what little fiscal responsibility our councils have left.

Most Scottish politicians would object if Westminster started dictating how Holyrood used the powers it has but this is exactly what Scottish politicians are proposing for local government with the council tax freeze and other pledges. Effectively removing local authorities control over council tax will make a bad situation worse. Council tax freezes may be popular, but council tax levels have to be a matter for councillors not MSPs, or why bother having local taxes at all.

If councillors choose to put up tax to meet spending commitments, local voters will be able to vote them out of office.  Equally, if councillors manage to keep bills low, that should be to their credit. Blurring these lines of responsibility blurs accountability.

In contrast, Reform Scotland has argued that local authorities should, over time, raise at least half of their own revenue. This would enhance their autonomy and accountability, which would also help councils become more responsive to the local communities. Giving councils full responsibility for council tax and business rates would be a good first step.

These are not new arguments.  They are the same ones made by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the SNP in their calls for more fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament. If it is right for  Parliament, then surely it is right for local government. In this regard, credit must be given to the Scottish Greens for arguing that “local community empowerment is an agenda Holyrood must embrace instead of seeing it as a threat.

Reform Scotland believes that we need to find new ways to provide our public services and to allow people choice so that they can decide how they want the service delivered. This is in contrast to teh manifestos of the main political parties. Government needs to facilitate the infrastructure which will help build a strong economy, it needs to protect its citizens and ensure proper competition. It does not, however, need to run all the services it currently provides – and in many cases provides inefficiently.

The financial and public sector crisis is not a short term problem and will not be solved by tinkering. It has highlighted that there are long-term structural problems within our society that need to be addressed.

We need to have a plan for Scotland for the next 20 years that enables the next generation to compete without the benefits of our oil resources, which will diminish over time.

Reform Scotland hopes that whichever party or parties form the next Scottish Government they heed our long-term vision for Scotland that seeks real structural reform across all areas of the public sector. They must be a lot bolder and more far-sighted today to create a stronger Scotland for tomorrow.

Alison Payne is research director of Reform Scotland