The Scottish Government's enfeebling of local councils is an attack on democracy
“Scotland will not meet its ambitious target of being net zero by 2045 without a more empowered local government sector,” said the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee of the Scottish Parliament recently.
“Councils across Scotland… are now entering the most difficult budget-setting context seen for many years” reports the Accounts Commission.
In December, Cosla said that it “was extremely disappointed that once again local government and the essential services it delivers have not been prioritised by the Scottish Government”.
These are just some examples of the consequences of failing to support and strengthen local government properly in Scotland. This is no longer just a complaint of councils and a few campaigners but is now a question that goes to the heart of politics in Scotland.
The centralising tendencies of all Scottish administrations since 1999 is now at the stage where we are facing significant risks in terms of the capacity to design and deliver public services accountable to local people.
At the beginning of the year, the first release of papers from the SNP government elected in 2007 was published by the National Records of Scotland.
In a paper for the October 2007 Cabinet, John Swinney lays out in graphic detail the relationship he wishes to engineer with local government. He proposes top-slicing of millions of pounds of council funds payable only at the end of the financial year if authorities have frozen Council Tax.
Laying out plans for what to do if councils were resistant to ministers’ proposals, he notes that, “we may need to play hardball with Cosla,” and “may need to deploy real threats”. Swinney argues that one such serious option “would be to indicate that we plan to centralise the delivery of school education”.
This is quite astonishing. Council tax is not, of course, the responsibility of Scottish ministers but by making a freeze a manifesto commitment whilst having no powers to implement it, the then finance secretary is forced to bribe and cajole with threats of removing significant powers.
Just how shocking this is can be illustrated by imagining how Scottish ministers would react to similar strong-arm tactics from the UK Government if it involved threats of financial penalties if ministers didn’t follow a UK Government manifesto commitment to freeze income tax rates in Scotland or if the UK Government threatened to “play hardball” and remove significant devolved competencies if Scottish ministers failed to agree a budget deal.
This kind of behaviour would be unconstitutional in many European countries. It would, for example, be illegal for the German Federal Government to seek to manipulate local tax rates in the Lander or municipalities.
And yet this attitude still persists in Scotland 14 years on. Mr Swinney told parliament’s Local Government Committee in November 2021 that part of the reason he was introducing more ring-fencing was, “that we see too great a variation in performance among local authorities in Scotland”.
Again, if Rishi Sunak were to make such a claim before a Westminster committee in defence of ring-fencing the Scottish Block Grant because of “variations in performance” across the devolved administrations, we would see it starkly as it really is – an assault on democracy – and John Swinney would probably be the one making this point forcibly in the morning news programmes.
With proposals before parliament to remove further major powers from local government through the establishment of a National Care Service, now is the time to take proper account of the long and steady decline in local government powers since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 (though the decline predates that with the nationalisation of health and energy in the post-war period).
Any modern state needs strong, accountable local government. Scotland is already one of the least democratic countries in Europe with no meaningful local government. The council ward that I live in is 100km wide and my “local” council covers an area larger than many European countries. Without education and social care, Scotland’s councils would have little if any governing to do. But that is the stage we have now reached, and which calls for a major review of Scottish democracy.
Iceland has a population of 372,000 which its less than the population of Edinburgh. It has 64 municipalities, which is double the number of local authorities in the whole of Scotland. Turnout at local elections had never fallen below 80 per cent until 2006 and has been in steady decline ever since, dropping to 63 per cent in 2022, resulting in much impassioned debate as to the causes. By contrast, turnout at local elections in Scotland has only exceeded 50 per cent twice in the past 50 years.
Scotland is not a modern European country. It has no checks and balances to stop the Scottish Parliament removing local government competencies – many of which have already disappeared – or to constrain the executive’s attempts to bribe and cajole councils through the budget process.
In the medium to long term, the centralised model of Scottish governance presents a serious risk to the delivery of modern and accountable public services. Local government has historically been the engine of the modern welfare state with innovations in the provision of sanitation, water, healthcare, energy, and housing.
With ongoing centralisation of services, and in the absence of meaningful local government, Scotland will fail to deliver the kind of society that its citizens rightly expect and which is taken for granted right across continental Europe.