‘Mergers and mayors ‘would boost voters’’ – Mail

AN END to the council tax freeze, the introduction of directly- elected mayors and a series of local authority mergers are among a batch of wide-ranging plans to boost voter turnout.

The numbers voting are feared to have hit a record low in Scotland’s local elections earlier this month.

And the Right-wing think-tank Reform Scotland has now called for changes in the way local councils are run to revive interest.

It recommends reducing the number of authorities from 32 to 19, then handing them more powers – including a greater say on local taxes and an end to the council tax freeze.

The think tank wants every council to be given the power to hold referendums on bringing in directly-elected mayors or provosts, which has revived interest in local politics in London.

It also urged a bonfire of government ‘quangos’ such as VisitScotland, Scottish Enterprise and the Police Services Authority – with their responsibilities being handed over to councils.

However, council group Cosla says there is no evidence that reducing the number of authorities would bring benefits.

Reform Scotland’s chairman Ben Thomson said: ‘It is clear from the recent disappointing local election turnout that we have to take action against the erosion of local democracy in Scotland.

‘This is not a party-political issue and we hope to start a vital debate in this country which will result in a solution being found which empowers our councils, and which engages people at election-time.’

One of the group’s recommendations is to scrap health and police boards with the 19 councils taking over their powers.

It is estimated that turnout in the Scottish council elections earlier this month was 38 per cent, compared to 52.8 per cent in 2007 and 49.8 per cent in 2003.

The report said that part of the reason for the apathy is the ‘lack of responsibility, visibility and accountability’ of councils.

A recent Yougov poll found that only 8 per cent of people know the name of their local council leader.

But the London mayoral elections generated mass public and media interest.

Scottish Conservative local government spokesman Margaret Mitchell said: ‘There is lots of food for thought in this report and we will give careful consideration to its conclusions.

‘The idea of directly- elected provosts is one we support and we are also in favour of looking at giving more responsibility to community councils.’

But Cosla called the report ‘ disappointing’ with s ome ‘woolly’ thinking.

A spokesman added: ‘It is also interesting and somewhat odd that a think-tank that champions localism is trying to deny councils the opportunity to be truly local.’