Does Scotland need more local government?
With the local government elections fast approaching, Holyrood gathered together a group of MSPs who started their political careers as councillors to discuss local politics and empowering communities
“The reality is most of the gripes we get in our inboxes are probably directly related to a council service that’s not being provided or not working,” says Green MSP Maggie Chapman.
“For most people, if you think [about] where do you live and what matters to you, it’s your pavement, your bins being collected, is there dog mess on the street, can you get social worker when you need one? These are all council services. So, I think there’s a mismatch between societal value that is placed on local government and actually the functions that local government provide.”
That’s a common view held by many involved with local politics. Council decisions are often the ones that most immediately impact on people, precisely because they influence the places you live, work and spend most of your time. But despite this, local governance remains a mystery to much of the electorate – not just the minutiae of how it functions, but in many cases even what councils have the powers to do.
Paul O’Kane, a Labour MSP, says: “People look at [councils] as the B-game and A-game is up here in parliament. I think we do kind of need to try and break out of that a bit, because [being a councillor] is a really worthwhile thing to do.”
Tory MSP Sue Webber agrees. She has enjoyed her time as a councillor because “that relationship you have, whether you’re opposition or administration, majority or a minority, you’ve got a conduit to the officers to actually make a difference for people… That ability to do that and have that instant opportunity to change someone’s life and make a difference is a big thing.”
But most people don’t understand how influential the council is. Chapman says: “If you asked people what your local council does, other than fail, people will say they do the bins. They’re not always sure schools are part of the council, they’re not always sure social work or health boards are part of a council, or at least have council input.”
We talk about localism but at the heart we need more councils, more community engagement, a broad range of diverse people sitting there
SNP MSP Emma Roddick adds: “They also don’t know what the [councillor] role involves – there’s constant criticism that councillors aren’t doing enough, which you get even if you work 12-hour days, attend community councils, are a member of a number of committees, go to local events, and hold surgeries.”
One explanation offered is the sheer size of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, which can make them feel very distant. Councils in Scotland represent an average of 170,000 residents – far higher than any other local governance model in Europe.
O’Kane says: “If you go to France, a village like Neilston where I live – which is maybe 2,500 people – would have a mayor and a town council, and then would have bigger jurisdictions above it which do different functions.
“Now, obviously I want to be the mayor of Neilston because I want the sash! But there are other models that clearly have worked for many, many years, and it’s almost like we’ve got really stuck in our ways and we’re afraid. I think it’s because of the experience of when the regions were broken up and the district councils, it’s kind of like, ‘oh, that was terrible, and that’s now dealt with so let’s never talk about it again’.”
Roddick backs a more municipal structure but adds this “wouldn’t make sense” in the current constitutional set-up as it could create “too many levels” of government. But she adds: “The Highland Council is absolutely ridiculous, though, and should be split up ASAP regardless of the wider structure. There’s no justification for it being what it is – it’s far too large geographically, and it’s one of the largest by population, too.”
The MSPs agree that local politics needs to be more local, and it order to do that, it might be a matter of making more, smaller councils. But a recent survey by polling analysis website Ballot Box Scotland found nearly half of Scots (48 per cent) believe councils are roughly the right size, compared to 32 per cent who would back shrinking them.
But SNP MSP Collette Stevenson believes such a change is necessary to revitalise local places. She says: “We talk about localism but at the heart we need more councils, more community engagement, a broad range of diverse people sitting there, actually having their say on how their town is run.”
Opposition to increasing the number of local authorities is because of the sensitive issues of cost and politicians’ pay, the MSPs agree. Stevenson argues an independent body – similar to IPSA, which sets the pay of MPs at Westminster – should be set up to tackle the latter. “It takes the complete sting out, because it’s so political and it’s so emotive when it comes to the electorate,” she explains.
That idea receives support from others in the room. Basic councillor pay – currently £18,604 a year – is seen as a real barrier to entry, because it is based on the assumption that local politicians have other sources of income. Webber – who was self-employed at the same time as being a councillor – says this can be helpful in some respects, because it can mean “you’re not just a politician, you’ve also got experience”.
Roddick is less certain. She says: “I am not sure about the outside job being a positive thing. That to me sounds more like a justification than anything, as the councillor with another role would be precluded from voting on issues that affect them in their other role and have to recuse themselves from meetings often. I have seen this a lot with folk who have a second job in tourism, business, or leisure services.”
But the experience can be different depending on where you represent. As an Edinburgh councillor, Webber explains council meetings can often last the whole day, so it becomes a full-time job. Meanwhile, O’Kane had a part-time job in the third sector as well as being a councillor because East Renfrewshire has a smaller workload.
Let’s be honest, to our shame in this country there are still local authorities with no women
Chapman argues low pay is a “symptom of a broader societal issue of local government not being valued”. She says: “For me, actually the big question we need to answer in Scotland is, what do we actually want our representative democracies to achieve? We might need more councillors, we might need more MSPs, we might need a different structure of local and national government completely. It’s about thinking, just because this is the system we’ve got, tinkering around the edges of a broken system still leaves you with a broken system. If we’re serious about doing local democracy well, then we need to resource it appropriately. We need to value it appropriately and value not in a monetary sense – although a monetary sense too – and give people the power to enact the things that they want.”
That sense of community empowerment was important to everyone, but as individual councillors it can be difficult to push for that. “It’s sometimes like pushing bloody treacle,” admits Stevenson.
Webber agrees: “To make a change in policy or implement change, it’s just such an arduous task. Nothing happens quickly enough for people to get a sense that you can actually make substantive change that might be needed.”
Roddick adds: “With the amount of issues on the agenda, it’s really hard to get anything done as an individual councillor. I feel that I was dragged in so many directions, it was as if I was being discouraged from fully pursuing any one or two issues.”
But O’Kane believes one positive to come out of Covid is the realisation that making big, structural changes is not impossible. He explains: “The council came into its own because we set up really rapid decision-making. Things that couldn’t be done were suddenly possible. That’s probably true of so many – getting things out the door, supporting people – and the turnaround was amazing. For the first time ever, the council were saying to communities, ‘we really need your help here’, and it can work. But it’s what do we learn from that? How do we take that learning forward?”
That experience was not uniform, however. Webber says: “The frustration with Edinburgh is the community did it themselves and the council had to catch up. Then [the council] put in a process for decision-making that shut the door and didn’t let some of the opposition parties come in and get involved.”
Indeed, Webber is particularly critical of the City of Edinburgh Council as a whole, arguing it is a “really political council” which can often get in the way of the day-to-day. “It’s like Holyrood on speed, frankly. You’ve got to remember what you’re responsible for as a local authority. We spend half our life talking about matters that should be discussed in Holyrood or discussed in Westminster, and there needs to be something in our standing orders that just stops it, because that is time and pressure on our officers. It’s distraction,” she says.
To make a change in policy or implement change, it's just such an arduous task. Nothing happens quickly enough
O’Kane has had the opposite experience at East Renfrewshire Council. “We very rarely, if ever, talk about the constitution. We just don’t talk about it because we’re kind of like, East Renfrewshire Council is not going to change the face of the constitutional future of this country. Now, we all have opinions around the table, and they’re different, and we lived through a referendum as an administration. But when we got down to the nub of it, it was about saying let’s focus on the issues and these are the issues in our areas.” He speaks positively about working with his colleagues across parties, particularly those councillors who represent his ward.
Likewise, Stevenson found cross-party working, for the most part, was a benefit. She says: “At a local level, I found that mostly our councillors all worked quite well. We had a three-member ward, and it was another SNP and Labour, and when there were local issues to deal with, we managed to work quite well together.”
But Chapman suggests that using the areas of political agreement and channelling it in the right way can also be helpful for encouraging community engagement. She says: “In some ways, actually, conflict like that can be useful for policy development and for discussing service delivery because you can use that as a catalyst for discussion with the community – if it’s well done, and it can be well done. It can also be atrociously done, and we’ve all seen that.”
Naturally, a discussion on community involvement also turns to diversity on councils – or rather, the distinct lack of it.
O’Kane says: “Let’s be honest, to our shame in this country there are still local authorities with no women. The Western Isles does not have a single female councillor… East Renfrewshire, one of the most diverse communities in the country, no black or minority ethnic councillors, nobody from the Jewish community, the Muslim community, which are a big part of that area, that community.
“Why? What are the barriers there? I think there are plenty and we in the council have had conversations about that, but again, we’re all sitting in a room, talking about other people who are not in the room.”
Webber agrees. “When you look at it in terms of gender, it’s is bad enough, but the minority groups, disability groups? There was a byelection in the pandemic for Craigentinny/Duddingston in Edinburgh and Ethan Young from the SNP won that byelection – a wheelchair-user – and he’s only been doing it for 18 months and he’s decided not to stand again. What did we do to either help or not help? What are we doing to make it accessible?”
And as a female councillor, she admits to feeling the burden to improve diversity keenly. “We need to really shake things up, but I don’t know how to do it. You think you can do it when you’re a woman in there, and then you see how hard it is and the pressures that we put on ourselves to be everywhere and be everything and not get criticised and look great and be at our best all the time. We just put more and more pressure on ourselves.”
Roddick is particularly critical of a lack of action on harassment of councillors, particularly by other elected members. “When there is harassment training, it’s usually optional, so they don’t go, and it focuses on how to handle it if you are harassed, rather than teaching these men about consent and what is unacceptable. I think that some consent training followed by real sanctions against those who remain abusive after they’ve been unequivocally told that it’s not okay is badly overdue.”
But if local governance was given the time and space, outside of the electoral cycle, to really change to suit the needs of Scotland, all the MSPs were positive about what it could deliver.
“Fundamentally, you need to look at what the structures is, where the power sits and who does what, and if you can start with a blank page and say let’s look at that in terms of our local governance, then probably you would come out with different ideas,” says O’Kane.
Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe