It’s time to address the erosion of local government powers
Lib Dem Councillor Graham Garvie on the ‘relentless shift’ of discretionary decision making powers away from local control
Councillor Graham Garvie - credit Braw Lads Gathering
The Scottish people will soon have the opportunity to cast their votes for their preferred choices of councillors to deliver vital services over the next five years to the diverse and complex communities that make up modern Scotland.
These communities have a wide variety of different needs, capacities and priorities. A powerful, responsive and properly resourced system of local government is essential to meet those needs.
For over half a century, there has been an erosion of powers and influence of local government away to central government.
In the same period there has been a commensurate increase in the number of government quangos which by their very nature and composition provide substantially less transparency and public accountability.
- That erosion of the powers of councils and their centralisation by every kind of political wind and fashionable whim has been sustained and demoralising. Prime examples include:
- Public housing gradually removed from councils and replaced by the creation of a nationwide system of housing associations in the 1970s/80s
- Further education colleges removed from councils in the 1980s
- Tourism promotion centralised into VisitScotland and local tourist boards abolished in the 1990s
- Water and sewage functions transferred from Councils in 1996 to three regional water authorities (these were subsequently merged into one national quango, Scottish Water)
- Environmental protection – transferred from councils in 1996 into a national quango, SEPA
- Economic development – abolition of locally accountable enterprise bodies in the early 2000s and the transfer of their powers and budgets into Scottish Enterprise
- Locally accountable councillor led Fire and Rescue Boards merged in 2013 into a single Scottish quango
- Locally accountable councillor led Police Boards merged in 2013 into a single Scottish quango
But perhaps the most serious erosion has been that of council finance.
In the 1970s, 50 per cent was raised directly by local authorities through local taxes, and 50 per cent was derived from central government by way of rate support grants. That percentage relationship has gradually changed over the years and is now an astonishing 83:17 in favour of central government funding.
And on top of that, there has been added a further central government choking control, and that is the determination of the level of council tax by government ministers in 2007 and continuing for nine consecutive years for all 32 Scottish local authorities—at last, hopefully, finally ended in 2017.
The situation of local authorities having minimal independent revenue raising powers that can support essential public services is undemocratic and is unique to Scotland in the whole of western Europe.
This relentless shift of discretionary decision making powers away from local control to the centre, not surprisingly, has led to the disengagement of the people, as evidenced by the ever-diminishing voter turnout at council elections.
Worth noting, too, is statistical evidence from other parts of Europe which shows, alarmingly, that Scotland has the smallest number of councils; the fewest councillors and the largest constituencies; the lowest turnout at council elections; the lowest level of empowerment of local decision making and with no constitutional right of local authorities to exist at all.
In any healthy democracy this hugely imbalanced state of affairs is surely unacceptable and cannot continue. It needs to be examined thoroughly by an independent committee of enquiry before the day comes when local authorities and locally accountable councillors disappear altogether.
Not so very long ago, such independent committees of enquiry were regularly established by government, taking time to examine carefully and report on matters of national concern. They were known as Royal Commissions. Local government in Scotland desperately needs one now.
Councillor Graham Garvie is president of the Scottish Provosts Association and convener of Borders Council
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