Dave Watson examines a recent investigation and reprises ideas for how to improve the situation
This summer, The Ferret, in conjunction with The Herald, ran a series of articles under the heading ‘Are Councils Working?’ The series identified problems across local authority areas and then highlighted some views on local government reform.
The long-term impact of austerity and the disproportionate cuts to local government grant allocations provided a consistent theme throughout the analysis. As the Accounts Commission reported in 2022: ‘Funding to local government has been reduced in real terms since 2013/14. The rest of the Scottish Government budget has seen an increase in funding over the same period.’ Tracey Dalling, UNISON Scottish Secretary, warned that worse was to come due to the most recent local government settlement: ‘Scottish government proposals to cut public services will have catastrophic consequences for communities across Scotland. It is foolish to tackle a cost-of-living crisis by undermining public services. Cuts will cause more unmet need, vital services will decline, and the quality of everyone’s life will go down.’
While the broader trend is important, The Ferret highlighted some specific services that do not always get the attention they deserve. Leisure services, often outsourced to arm’s length bodies, have suffered particularly badly. Between April 2010 and March 2021, there was a 25% reduction in spending on leisure services by councils but an increase of 14% in those attending them. Likewise, spending on libraries has been cut by 29% over ten years, even though the number of people visiting libraries grew by 42%. 83 public libraries have closed. Cuts to these services directly impact local communities, especially in the most deprived areas of the country.
There was also a suggestion that common good funds, worth around £860m, were being raided to plug some of the gaps. However, the fall in value was not massive, and these assets are difficult to value accurately. Other spending on private companies, agency cleansing workers, marketing and debt collectors were also challenged. Last year, debt interest at £414m was described as ‘eye watering’, although we should remember that this pays for new community assets and the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) rates are below commercial rates. However, there is a valid concern about the cost of older loans. UNISON Scotland highlighted this issue in a 2017 report called ‘Combatting Austerity’ and suggested a range of reforms while UNITE has campaigned for a debt write-off. The ongoing cost of PPP/PFI schemes remains a millstone around the neck of many councils.
Another theme was the need to strengthen local democracy. There have been many initiatives to encourage greater participation, but most have failed to engage those outwith middle-class areas. It is also increasingly difficult to attract councillors of working age. One in three female councillors stepped down at the 2022 election. Facing abuse online and offline, lacking support to juggle family and work responsibilities, combined with low wages, disincentivise women in particular from participating in local politics. They do not even get maternity leave.
All of this leads to the question of how local government should be reformed. Common ground was the need to decentralise power and give people more input into the decisions that affect them. Professor James Mitchell claimed the SNP had taken centralisation to ‘far greater levels than witnessed in the Thatcher years’ – describing this as a ‘damning indictment’ of the SNP’s record, saying: ‘There is more expertise in local government and our communities than exists in the Scottish central government but much of Scottish Government operates from a top-down, uniformist starting point rather than work in partnership’. The National Care Service is just the latest example of this trend – see Stephen Low’s article in this issue.
Specific proposals include the devolution of local taxes and more localised decision-making. Scotland has the smallest number of councils in Europe per head of population, with many being remote from the communities they serve. As Common Weal put it: ‘The core problem with local democracy in Scotland is that we don’t have one. Scotland deserves the kind of municipal-level government that almost all of our peer nations in Europe consider to be ‘normal.’
All of these issues and more were covered in my paper for the Jimmy Reid Foundation in 2020. It makes a case for a comprehensive programme to rebuild communities as the building block of a more equal, democratic, healthier and sustainable society. The Ferret analysis shows that the social infrastructure that binds our communities together continues to be depleted, while the pandemic has further weakened the local economy. This makes my proposals on sustainable community wealth building, local funding, reducing inequality, and strengthening local democracy all the more important. With local elections several years away, now would be a good time to start the process of reform. We need a new settlement for local government that allows communities to determine the best form of local governance for their area, not a one size fits all approach directed from the centre.
Dave Watson is a policy consultant and a member of the Jimmy Reid Foundation Project Board. His Reid paper can be found at https://reidfoundation.scot/2020/08/building-stronger-communities/ The Ferret investigation can be found at https://theferret.scot/tag/are-councils-working/