COSLA president: Local government has ‘not benefited from devolution’
Local government has “not benefited from devolution”, according to the president of COSLA, Councillor Alison Evison.
Speaking at the annual COSLA conference in St Andrews, Evison said that “one of the sad paradoxes of devolution” was that “by and large the devolution of powers has stopped at Holyrood”.
Evison suggested that although councils worked towards many of the ambitions the parliament had been set up to achieve 20 years ago, this had been done without powers being devolved to them.
“We need to put a stronger arrangement in place,” she said.
The local government leader called for the status and role of councils to be put into Scots law, with Scotland and the UK “almost unique amongst western democracies” in not having councils’ powers set out in legislation.
“One of COSLA’s longest held objectives, is the need for the formalisation of local democratic government in the governance of Scotland,” she said.
“Colleagues, you will all know that Scotland and the UK are almost unique amongst western democracies in so far as local government’s basic powers and autonomy are not set out in law.
“To my knowledge the only other country is Belarus, but I believe they too are taking steps to correct that.
“Of course, positive relationships do exist between Scottish and local government and the parliament, but this situation contrasts with international practice where local government’s basic rights are legally established; and where national and local government require to work in partnership by default to exercise their respective roles,” she said.
Speaking on the theme of ‘choice’, the Aberdeenshire councillor suggested that councils’ choices were currently limited by Scottish Government control over local government finances, with the Scottish Government ringfencing 58 per cent of council budgets.
She said: “As every elected member in the room today will be only too well aware – savings can only be made to 42 per cent of the budget.
“Scottish Government policies continue to protect 58 per cent of the available budget, which increases the problem [of budget cuts].
As we protect education and health and social care, services such as economic development, roads, public protection, and early intervention services all fall under this 42 per cent of the budget, so there must be an end to ringfencing.
“Other spheres of government must not get frustrated with our choices – they have to realise that as councillors we make local democratic choices on behalf of our communities.
“This is exactly what we are elected to do and what we are responsible for doing.
“Other spheres cannot get upset when we look at raising more of our own finance through things like the transient visitor tax – especially if the money allocated by them is not enough for all the things that we want to achieve locally and which our communities expect from us.
“As political and community leaders, if our choice is to strengthen local democracy and local choice starting with the discretion to introduce something like a transient visitor tax, then that is our choice.
“Local taxation has not changed for decades and it would be our choice to further empower local authorities to deliver choice for communities.
“That is why we are happy to be working with the Scottish Government on the council tax cross-party talks group co-chaired by Gail Macgregor and Kate Forbes MSP.
“It would be our choice on behalf of you our membership… to be more innovative around funding for public services and it would be a council’s choice to introduce something locally if the circumstances were right.
“Our choice is for Scottish Government to empower local government and allow us to create opportunities for Scotland to flourish.
“And, of course, the electorate can judge us on our choices – in the same way that they judge our national colleagues on theirs – but they should be the only ones to affect our decisions.”