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‘The Bottom Line on Devolution’ – Herald Leader

This article was the Herald Editorial

Devolution has transferred substantial powers from Westminster to Holyrood but that is where the localism agenda ground to a halt.

If anything, since 1999 Scotland has become more centralised. Though the SNP’s concordat has given local authorities flexibility over how they spend their budgets, the long council tax freeze has to a degree emasculated local democracy. Voters no longer have a choice between lower-spending councils with limited public services and higher-spending ones with wider provision. The low turn-out in the recent council elections is a measure of how far the heart has gone out of Scottish local government.

The creation of a single police force in another example of power flowing centrally rather than away from the centre. And yet, especially in Scotland’s remote and island communities, Holyrood can seem almost as distant as Westminster. At the community council level, it is even worse. These bodies have so little power that they often struggle to fill their own ranks.

Against that backdrop, today’s report from Reform Scotland enhances the debate about how we should be governed. For many Scots, renewing local democracy is as important as the future status of the Scottish Government. The think tank would like to see greater powers handed to councils, including complete freedom over how they raise what they spend. Imagine a situation where local authorities decided not only the level of council tax and business rates but also had the power to raise their budget through a local sales tax or a bed tax on hotels. Presumably, to prevent a single council going too far out on a limb, limits could be imposed within which to operate.

At present there are too many councils for such a system to operate. For several years The Herald has argued that Scotland would be better served by merging council services to create more efficient units. Reform Scotland suggests 19, bringing local authorities in line with other boundaries, such as police and health boards, and making local authorities responsible for the operation of these essential services. It would move local government back in the direction of the old regional councils. The think tank ducks the big issue of Glasgow, which would retain its boundaries, leaving it as a concentration of deprivation, surrounded by a circle of affluence. Other Scottish city boundaries are drawn less tightly. Community councils would also receive a shot in the arm, with increased powers over local planning decisions.

In some ways the most important recommendation is to give local authorities powers and responsibilities over health services. Despite the efforts of successive Scottish administrations, before and after devolution, the NHS, run by health boards, and council-administered social services remain two stools between which patients can fall. Arrangements for elderly patients leaving hospital are the most obvious example. Fresh thinking is required on the future of democracy in Scotland at every level. Reform Scotland’s contribution is welcome.