Local vibrations: an overview of local government in Scotland

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 5 October 2017 in Inside Politics

Some people might have sleepwalked through May’s council elections but the quiet earthquake in Scotland’s local authorities could be about to rock residents to their foundations

A seismic shift in governance took place in communities throughout Scotland earlier this year – but you may not have noticed if you were dazzled by the bright lights of Brexit and yet another general election.

The council elections in May were supposed to be the last great barometer of Scottish public opinion before the next scheduled general election in 2020, but Theresa May had other plans.
Communities went to the polls to elect their local councillors just two weeks after May called her snap general election, and little more than a month before the date of the national vote.

With so much high drama taking place on a national and European stage, the council elections were relegated to a sideshow or, at best, a preview of the big election. But there was enough drama in the trailer to whet people’s appetite for the national vote ahead.


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The SNP finally overturned Labour’s post-war dominance of Scotland’s biggest city to become the largest party in Glasgow, the missing piece of the jigsaw in the nationalist landslides of the first half of the decade.

SNP group leader Susan Aitken hailed the victory as a “historic moment for the city”, although the SNP failed to win enough seats to secure an overall majority.

“The city chambers in Glasgow has been run by Labour for decades now, mismanaged, some might say, and clearly the people of Glasgow thought it was time for a change, time for a fresh start, and they’ve put their faith in the SNP to deliver that fresh start,” she said.

Labour was pushed into second place while the Conservatives came third, picking up seats in deprived areas that would never have dreamed of voting Tory in the past, such as Shettleston and Calton.

Aitken initially declared herself open to a coalition deal, but eventually decided to run the council as a minority administration amid suspicions of ongoing mistrust of the Labour Party which ran the city for decades.

The new SNP council leaders appointed a ‘transparency tsar’ to review “past decisions and practices” of previous administrations, but its decision to appoint Colin Mair, of the Improvement Service, without any scrutiny of council committees or the full council, has fuelled concerns that he will be used as a politically motivated ‘sleaze finder’. 

While it remains to be seen what potentially murky council practices Mair will uncover, one widespread failing of most councils – and indeed most public services – has presented Aitken with a pressing challenge. 

Glasgow City Council could be facing equal pay claims from women totalling half a billion pounds, following a court ruling that stated its salary system is weighted against female workers.
Aitken has pledged to consult trade unions on pay scales, insisting the SNP was elected on a commitment “to improve industrial relations in Glasgow City Council, including resolving inherited outstanding equal pay cases”.

The SNP also became the largest party in Edinburgh for the first time, denying the Tories what would have been a historic victory in Scotland’s capital by a single seat.

The Tories actually secured the most votes in the city but were denied a place on the council administration as the SNP chose to resume their previous coalition with Labour, which saw its council representation cut in half.

It took Labour six weeks to hammer out a coalition deal with the SNP, amid scepticism from Scottish Labour’s national executive committee, which eventually consented to the deal after Edinburgh

Labour group leader Cammy Day reportedly insisted he would sign the deal anyway without the NEC’s consent.

He said: “We have many differences with the SNP, and fundamentally oppose the Nationalists’ support for independence, but will always put Edinburgh first.”

Like Glasgow, City of Edinburgh Council remains haunted by the decisions of previous administrations, particularly the tram project, which has surpassed Edinburgh’s (extremely low) expectations to turn a profit two years ahead of forecast, but still casts a pall over the local authority.

The past and future of the trams continue to dominate coverage of the City of Edinburgh Council, with the council taking baby steps towards completing the project while an independent inquiry into the fiasco that saw it arrive three years late, several miles short and twice the original budget, continues in earnest.

The council has faced calls to wait for the verdict of the trams inquiry, presided over by former lord advocate Andrew Hardie, before proceeding with the rest of the line, but McVey has said the council will not stand “idle” awaiting “an indefinite undefined timescale” to complete the project.

In an uncharacteristic show of support for a public corporation, Tory councillors in the capital have voiced concerns that the tramline extension will be funded by “leveraging millions of pounds of cash from Lothian Buses”. The SNP vehemently opposed the project from its inception, but became late converts to the cause after John Swinney was forced to step in to prevent Labour truncating the line even further to Haymarket, which would have saved money in the short term, but limited its profits and potentially left Edinburgh with a  white elephant.

It’s not just the future trams budget that is causing the current crop of Edinburgh councillors a financial headache. The council hit serious money troubles just three months into the financial year, overspending its budget by £11m in the first quarter and there are warnings of deep cuts and potential redundancies ahead.

The controversial coalition deal struck in Edinburgh pales in comparison to the earthquake created in Aberdeen when nine Labour councillors were suspended by their party for signing a forbidden pact with the Tories to lock the SNP out of the council administration.

The SNP won twice as many seats as the other parties and was the clear winner in the popular vote, but Labour’s decision to side with their arch-rivals in the Tory party, while their leaders were condemning Tory austerity at Holyrood and Westminster, is a sign of the factious state of Scottish politics today.

“Tory austerity risks hurting so many families in Aberdeen, and the Labour Party simply will not stand for that,” said Labour’s erstwhile leader Kezia Dugdale, who last week admitted that her party’s internal contradictions have been weighing heavily on her mind after bowing out gracefully from leadership in August, citing personal reasons.

The SNP had hoped that by securing the most seats in Scotland’s biggest cities it would complete the landslide which began in 2011, but just as the most coveted slots in the centre of the jigsaw were being filled, the pieces at the edge of picture were falling away. 

The Conservatives secured the largest number of councillors in the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and Aberdeenshire, in a barnstorming performance that saw them more than double their number of councillors throughout Scotland.

Perth and Kinross was one of the biggest prizes for the Tories, kicking the SNP into second place and giving them the opportunity to form a Tory-led coalition.

“People are getting behind the Scottish Conservatives because we really are the only alternative to the SNP,” said Conservative group leader Ian Campbell, who went on to lead the new administration.

However, the group recently became mired in scandal when a Tory councillor was suspended and ordered to resign after appearing in court charged with possessing inappropriate images of children.

Former music teacher Michael Jamieson, who represents Perth City South, is accused of having indecent files on his home computer.

And in the same week, Fife councillor Kathleen Leslie was struck off the teaching register for posting offensive comments on social media about Nicola Sturgeon and others.

The Conservatives’ admirable showing in Stirling was also marred by scandal when two of its councillors were suspended for offensive online posts.

The Tories almost doubled their number of seats in Stirling, drawing equal with the SNP, and secured the largest share of the vote, but were kicked out of the council administration. The party was previously the junior partner in a coalition with Labour, but the SNP’s prohibition on coalition deals with the Tories meant Labour could return to the administration under the SNP.

But even before the coalition deal was signed, Conservative councillors Alastair Majury and Robert Davies were suspended.

Majury made derogatory remarks online about Catholics, attacked benefit claimants, boasted about the size of his manhood, and said the SNP was too busy talking about gay marriage, while Davies was criticised for making racist jokes.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson faced a backlash in August when she reinstated the councillors, insisting they had been disciplined, sanctioned, had offered a full and unreserved apology, and had expressed “a genuine wish to change their behaviour”.

Davidson pardoned her wayward councillors the day after one of her top team, Douglas Ross, who rose through the ranks from Moray councillor to Holyrood and on to Westminster, was criticised for making ill-considered remarks about gypsy travellers.

The Tories’ council woes are a common problem for parties enjoying a resurgence in successive elections, with all of the top talent siphoned off for higher office, leaving a few unknown quantities to make up the numbers with less thorough vetting.

The council election earthquakes throughout Scotland finally saw the reunification of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), which was the undisputed umbrella body for all councils until four formerly Labour-led councils resigned to form the Scottish Local Government Partnership splinter group. Aberdeen was the last council in Scotland to rejoin COSLA in August, after Glasgow, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire did so earlier in the year.

The resurrection of COSLA as a full-strength fighting force will allow it to resume its role as a bulwark against what many councillors regard as the creeping centralisation agenda of the Scottish Government.

Scotland’s biggest councils in and around its seven cities will benefit from millions of pounds of new funding from the UK Government’s city deals, which are designed to support innovation, infrastructure, housing and economic development. 

But councils remain anxious that their powers will be diminished in other areas, and have repeatedly raised concerns about the impact of removing “democratic accountability” from Scotland’s education system.

Education Secretary John Swinney confirmed plans to give headteachers more control over school funding in his education reform package in June, but the decision to deprive councillors of handling the education purse strings did not go down well with Scotland’s councils. COSLA warned that it would do little to raise attainment or improve educational equality.

The Scottish Government has long promised a wholesale reform of local governance and finance, but much of its efforts to date have been seen as tinkering around the edges. When it first came to power in 2007, the SNP pledged to scrap the council tax, but instead instigated an increasingly unpopular freeze while leaked drafts of its proposed alternative of a local income tax showed its potential to leave a massive black hole in local authority budgets.

The Scottish Government finally defrosted council tax rates this year, allowing councils to raise them by up to three per cent, although some councils chose to continue the freeze voluntarily for the current year.

It also increased council tax in the top four bands, ensuring that people living in properties deemed to be the most expensive would pay more tax while those living in properties deemed to be less so were protected. However, it did nothing to reform a system where properties are valued based on a guess as to how much they would have been worth in 1991, and leaves no room for appeal for anyone who has lived in the property for over six months.

For a party that made great capital from forgiving historic poll tax debts, the last thing the SNP needs is a popular revolt over local government finance, so the Scottish Government is likely to continue to proceed with caution. 

But with council budgets becoming increasingly squeezed by demographic pressures, as people live longer with debilitating conditions that require costly social care, it may be time for a reckoning, something the First Minister acknowledged in her programme for government with a review of local governance promised for next year.

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