Marco Biagi: Our democracy is more national than local, and staying that way

Written by Marco Biagi on 17 March 2017 in Comment

Former Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, Marco Biagi says more decisions should be taken at ward level, not just council level 

 

Marco Biagi - Picture credit: David Anderson

Call the Advertising Standards Agency. Someone used the phrase: ‘Scottish local government’ again. It is nothing of the sort. Entrusted with £15bn of spending every year and responsibilities that touch the life of every citizen every day, our 32 councils are too big to be local and mostly not big enough to be strategic.

There are brilliant council leaders, formidable chief executives, long-suffering staff and valiant local councillors out there who are working hard within this worst of both worlds. There are also tribal non-entities whose learned behaviour is to reproduce the embittered divides of Holyrood and Westminster in town halls up and down the country.


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In the name of democracy, enough.

No one – but no one – thinks our current local governance arrangements are the right ones. The rest of this article could just be a list of all the groups I encountered while an MSP that wanted Holyrood to change some aspect of council business and I would run out of column inches before I ran out of campaigners with well-founded cases for changes in their area of interest. This means it is always easier to do a reform here, another there, rather than address the problem wholesale. What councils do is change in increments. Their social care responsibilities are pooled with NHS primary health and managed by joint council-NHS boards. Their multi-council police boards are replaced by a national service with a scrutiny committee in each authority area. City deals are offered to reward working together on the economy. Then there’s planning reform, licensing changes, the care review. The list just goes on. And you don’t have to be the Brahan Seer to see that the next big one will be schools.

Look closely at the alternative to a comprehensive overhaul and the alarm bells start to ring. Abstract and easy to dismiss as process rather than result; inevitably expensive, bureaucratic and politically contested. Local government itself, officially signed up to sweeping structural reforms after their Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, expends infinitely more energy arguing for more powers for the existing 32 authorities than for structural reform. Wholesale local government reform has its proponents, but there are no mass demonstrations in its favour.

If a wand could have been waved and a new system of local government popped fully-formed into existence, I would have been the first to swing a moderately pliable rosewood and exclaim, “municipium commutate”. But real life is more complicated than Harry Potter. 

Anyone taking a step back to consider local government from a blank sheet will have to convince that whatever solutions they present are necessary, and commensurate with the resources required to deliver them. Monies expended on the cash-hungry process of reorganisation are denied to other vital public services. And in current times money is not in ready supply. Reform would need to be justified by results. Those responsible for the creation of Police Scotland have had to argue fiercely for the savings and improvements the changes are intended to deliver, and that reorganisation would be only a tiny fraction of the scale of the simultaneous reorganisation of the principal bureaucracies of Scotland’s education, social work, local transport, waste management and social housing systems, implied by wholesale reform.

Government ministers arriving in office are always handed short briefings setting out, in calm and dispassionate language and a reassuringly boring Arial font, their portfolio’s hottest topics. This is a euphemism for problems. The job then mostly becomes trying to work out which problems annoy people the most (ie “other countries’ education systems have overtaken ours”) then finding solutions you think might work (so not “let’s try school vouchers”) that don’t annoy them more (so not “how about we put taxes up?”). 

Leadership? Half of leadership is convincing people your solution is the right one; the other half is persuading them to care enough to let you implement your solution.

Having the right answers is never enough. But it helps.

Firstly, how much autonomy should councils actually have? This is a more complicated question than first appears, which can be illustrated by an extreme hypothetical: imagine a council decided to close all their schools, use the savings to cut council tax to zero, and leave children to be educated at home. No council would do so, but if one were to try to do this – or something you also consider unacceptable – what is the proper way to stop them? Should local voters simply promise to turf out the administration at the next election and make do in the meantime if the administration refuses to budge? Or should the Scottish Government step in and legislate? In this case, what we have is the latter: the Education Act 1980 compels local authorities to deliver certain levels of education. But on every different issue, the line between what a council is required to do by law and where local voters should have the responsibility of judging them is drawn at a different place by different people and is generally the product of political circumstances. 

Our democracy is more national than local, and staying that way. For a concerned citizen wanting to keep an eye on what the Scottish or UK Parliaments are up to there are TV and radio programmes, and daily national newspapers with dedicated correspondents. Should they wish to monitor their local council, though, they will have a harder time, even in the big cities. While there is a theory that greater powers would encourage greater local coverage, this effect would be to push against all the pressure of the news industry’s current direction of travel.

For all of these reasons, Holyrood will always be under pressure to intervene, and this will only be exacerbated by Brexit’s austerity-plus. Anyone who thinks they will abstain from stepping in is ignoring reality. 

The test of any politician’s support for decentralisation is whether they support handing over a power in the knowledge that it will be used for a purpose that politicians would never themselves implement. A real decentralist is a Conservative who backs councils being able to increase business rates and licensing regulation or a Green who is content to let councils be free to turn their cycle paths into car parks.

There are few real decentralists.

But people also want and deserve better local decisions. To do that they need ways to exercise better control over their representatives’ decisions. The only way to do that is to make those decisions in communities. In parallel to encouraging delivery of certain big services at a regional level, like city deals or by joint arrangements with national and local dimensions, like education and policing, key functions that define quality of life and quality of a community need to be dealt with by those communities. 

Scotland has fewer councillors per person than any other country in Europe, that is undeniable. But rightly or wrongly, most people see that as a good thing. Arguing for the alternative will change few minds. Doubling politicians with a return to the pre-1995 local and regional councils would be hideously unpopular but is also unnecessary.

By the end of my ministerial tenure, I had become persuaded by a model that turns our current unitary local authorities more into a form resembling federations. New legislation could bestow additional responsibilities on subcommittees of councils that already, by-and-large, exist at a community level, allowing them to assume the role and title of town councils. Thus, one set of councillors would exist, but would sit at two levels, with more decisions taken at the level of their ward or the collection of wards that make up the town they live in. Bureaucratic reorganisation would be minimal. It is an incremental solution in an area of government where only incremental solutions seem to have any chance of enactment. A commitment to that effect made its way into the 2016 SNP manifesto, so there is no question of having the mandate, if there is also the desire. 

Without action of any kind, the local government map will just carry on through inertia, retaining the arrangements sketched out by Tories at the fag-end of a tired government long starved of whatever paltry stock of legitimacy it had ever had. Widely seen as an attempt at gerrymandering, the structure of local government the Conservatives established wasn’t even successful at that: leafy enclaves like East Dunbartonshire had turned their back on John Major before the ink was dry on the Royal Assent.

But with Tories again on the rise, and Labour declining, the political complexion of our councils is also set to change. The Labour-SNP dynamic that bizarrely took constitutional politics into the level of government with least constitutional influence may be replaced by SNP-Conservative. While Holyrood shows that may well entrench constitutional politics even more, there is at least a possibility that genuine ideological debate about the size and role of the state may come to be a significant divide in councils. If nothing else, this alone may draw further attention to whether these structures are now – or were ever – fit for purpose and make their modernisation a cause a government would consider urgent enough to demand the investment of political capital, even with the most limited of resources.

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