Reform Scotland

Time for a new Bon Accord? – John Edward

Are our local government boundaries the correct ones?  Boundaries Scotland, in its capacity covering administrative area reviews, has only undertaken individual ward reviews in recent years.  It is long overdue that they are tasked by Parliament to undertake a more substantial review of local authority areas, and given the permission to consider radical changes or, where necessary, reductions.  The work currently underway on Parliamentary boundaries should provide supporting data.  There are, however, more issues to consider.

One major development that has had a substantial impact on local government has come since any serious proposals for reform were last made.  The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has removed an entire level of shared powers and cooperation that gave particular impetus to local authority work.  The local authorities of Scotland were represented from an early stage in Brussels.  The combination of substantial funding for Objective 1 and 2 regions, as well as the complementarity of local authority responsibilities with some competences at an EU level, gave local authorities and their representatives very defined roles in terms in representation and management.  In addition, networks, including the Committee of the Regions, provided an arena for cooperation at the level of local government beyond Scotland which has now been removed with the formal removal of EU architecture in the UK.  There has been no meaningful debate to reflect these changes in the dynamic between local and national governments, particularly as EU competences have defaulted primarily to the UK government rather than being formally devolved.

Serious consideration should be given to the direct election of Provosts, (or similar title).  The natural starting point is for those 4 cities currently recognised within the 32 local authorities that currently exist – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen (the traditional ‘Counties of Cities’ from the last century).  This would not preclude the extension of such a role to further areas, perhaps dependent on a local petition similar in structure to parliamentary recall petitions.  Some geographically distinct authority areas, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands and Scottish Borders provide natural designations, although the predominance of independent candidates in several of those would require consideration as to how such campaigns and administrations could be supported.  Others such as Argyll and Bute, or Fife might well be self-selecting, while others would benefit from amalgamation.  Highlands Council, incorporating the city of Inverness, might require particular scrutiny, given its size and composition.

Finally, no consideration of local authority reform will be meaningful without a substantial change in the language on, and approach to, local government democracy itself.  The introduction of the Single Transferable Vote in 2007 for local government by the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition in the Scottish Parliament, has been regularly and widely lauded as a highpoint for modernised and proportional democracy in a devolved Scotland.  Such pride has not prevented every single political party in Scotland displaying indignation and despair at moves towards possible alliances for government at a local level – although only when their own party is not involved.

A responsible commitment to proportional representation, in whatever format, requires an equally responsible attitude to the creation of alliances and coalitions that such a voting system inevitably requires.  The experience of the UK coalition government from 2010-15 shows how uncomfortable and novel the recent reality of administrations composed of several parties all lacking a majority is for those same parties and media and commentators reporting on them.  The same could partially explain the ambivalence of UK political commentators, and the wider electorate, towards proportional elections to the European Parliament between 1999 and 2019.

Political Parties which seek representation through any voting system, and those who report on them, have a responsibility to explain fully what consensus and coalition actually mean – and that proportional voting is an alternative system to first-past-the-post, but not an inferior one.

John Edward is head of operations for the Scottish Council on Global Affairs but writes in a personal capacity. He was also a member of the Commission on Parliamentary Reform.

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