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Comment: Where power lies

Local government is 'vital to effective service delivery and meaningful democracy'

Comment: Where power lies

'Increasingly imbalanced relationship' needs rebalanced

Forty years ago, John Sewel as Cosla president wrote a pamphlet: A time to listen and a time to speak out. He was critical of the “rapid moves towards greater central control over local expenditure and hence policies” and criticised proposed changes that would undermine local democracy. The centralisation of four decades ago looks modest compared with today. It has been on a long, unhappy journey as successive power-hungry central governments have devoured what rightly belongs to local government.

Ironically, devolution was based on a critique of centralist uniformism. Yet devolved government has exhibited the same vices.  The mythical ‘man in Whitehall knows best’ has been replaced by the ‘person in St Andrews House knows best’, an advance in equality among elites, but a retrograde step in devolution’s promise of sharing power.

As far as central/local relations are concerned, Scotland remains very British, far from the European or Scandinavian nation some would have us believe. Our system of government has become a truncated travesty of self-government. There is a need to rebalance the relationship.

And let’s be very clear, the Scottish Government’s notion of ‘community empowerment’ needs to be treated with a large dose of scepticism. There is no appetite in the Scottish Government to create any alternative sources of authority. The Scottish Government is eloquent in the language of progressive politics but poor in its practice. Meaningful community empowerment requires partnership with powerful local government. Otherwise, it will involve further local disempowerment, dumping problems without necessary resources in our communities, and it should be exposed as a cynical exercise in centralisation dressed in progressive garb.

Local government is vital to effective service delivery and meaningful democracy. It is key to the delivery of good even apart from its shrinking spheres of autonomous action. And as James Madison argued, “ambition must be made to counter ambition” to secure “against the gradual concentration of several powers”.

“All politics are local” will forever be associated with Tip O’Neill, one of the giants of twentieth century American politics. O’Neill lost only one election in his long career. He came ninth in a contest for eight seats when he stood, in his first election, for Cambridge City Council, Massachusetts in 1935. O’Neill had campaigned city-wide, neglecting his local community and had taken support for granted. Even as Speaker of the House of Representatives, O’Neill never neglected his Boston district that returned him to Congress 17 times between 1953 and 1987. His biographer noted O’Neill was “never too big to be parochial”. That pejorative ‘parochial’ reflects an ill-informed but pervasive attitude.

An alternative view is that the central legislature should butt out of local decision making altogether, allowing local authorities to reflect local needs, priorities and preferences without interference. The late Bernard Crick often pointed to the error, as he saw it, of the Ceann Comhairle (equivalent to Holyrood’s presiding officer) allowing a question in the Dail in its early days on a rural phone box. The Scottish Parliament, Crick argued, should not intrude into affairs best left to local decision-makers.

It is difficult to reconcile the O’Neill and Crick positions, though each has validity. Local and national politics are inevitably intertwined. Local concerns are affected by national decisions and national decisions should take account of local conditions. There should be more scope for autonomous local decision making but much requires mutual respect and co-operation. It comes down to balance and the system has become grossly imbalanced.

There is a need for bold action after decades of assaults on local autonomy and an increasingly imbalanced relationship. The first step must be to increase the authority of local government, giving local authorities a stronger voice to compete with central government and get noticed against the background din of Holyrood.

We need not look to Scandinavia for our first lesson. We would do well to look over the border, not least as our situation is similar to England’s.  Indeed, Scotland will show political maturity when it comfortably adopts an English policy because it makes sense for us. Diverging from poor past performance and policies is better than the obsession with diverging from our neighbour.

Elected mayors have proved a fascinating experiment and while nobody could claim that they are a panacea, they have given local areas greater visibility, especially in the eyes of central government. The quality of directly elected political heads will vary but a higher profile is likely to attract quality leadership.

Such political leaders will experience greater scrutiny and more likely contribute more coherent programmes, even visions for their areas. There is no suggestion in such a proposal of creating a class of local bosses, not least as directly elected leaders would need to operate within a system of multi-level governance and will be constrained by other elected local politicians. There will be tensions and battles – the stuff of politics – except that local champions will have greater authority in exchanges with central government.

Such an idea would only be a start and bound to be opposed by those jealous of any challenge to the authority of the persons in St Andrews House. That alone is reason to give it serious consideration. It is a time for the Scottish Government to listen and local government to speak out with greater authority.

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