The work of local government just got a lot tougher with confirmation that the agenda of the centre right will dominate the new Parliament. The SNP and Tories agree the new taxation powers should not be used to increase the basic rate of tax or the higher rate of tax to provide more income – which could have been used for services provided by local government. Even the limited tax raising ability of the Council Tax, approximately 12% of local expenditure is raised through taxation, is restricted with a maximum of 3% and token tinkering with the top 4 bands rather than a wholesale revision as was promised by the SNP. Even by the SNP’s own figures, this will only raise a maximum of £300m in Scotland which is less than has been removed this financial year from local government.
Reduction and restriction of finance is one thing but it is also clear that powers will continue to be removed from councils and centralised. Mention was made of education being removed and administered by local boards and the integration of health and social care is still a contested area in local government which could be removed and centralised by the new Scottish Government. Councils will not just be hollowed out but reformation including a reduction in number of Council’s is also on the agenda. So what can be done?
COSLA has called for a summit to ‘redraw the partnership between local and national government‘ aimed at delivering a new framework with ‘local variation’ in what Scotland wants and to a certain extent that is what is demonstrated by the election results. Whilst the debate in Scotland tends to be restricted to the primary colours of black and white and all the depth of Twitter, Scotland’s politics are, in fact and in practice, more sophisticated as it gets to grips with tactical voting.
Swings to the Tories in the north east and south west show that their strength there is returning and the mixed results in Edinburgh, combined with the fact that nearly 45% of the electorate did not vote, show that how power is wielded and who holds it in Scotland at Scottish Parliament, City Council and citizen level needs to be reviewed. COSLA’s challenge to the new Parliament to work with it in the first 100 days of the new Parliament to deliver 5 pledges to a) make Scotland’s public services local by default; b) redraw the partnership between local and national government; c) give communities financial choices; d) open up Scottish democracy; and e) join up thinking on reform.
Applying this approach we could, if taken up, begin to renew local government so that rather than continue the ‘rate capping’ and demolition approach used by the UK Government in the 1980s towards local government, a different way is taken in Scotland. This would continue the work of the Scotland Act 2003 and that of the Christie Commission but, to date, increased centralisation has been the only change. This agenda contains dangers as well as opportunities but doing nothing is not an option.
Another challenge from a different source is the City Deal agenda promoted by the UK government. This too has dangers and opportunities, but does give power locally in a way that has seen councils queue up to take part as a potential solution to the squeeze on their finances by the Scottish Government. Westminster’s willingness to take this forward and the absence of a considered response to the COSLA challenge could aid Tory fortunes in Scotland as they show willingness to accede power to cities in a way that the Scottish Government has not done to date.
There is an irony in that ’nationalism’ is the dominant narrative in Scotland and the ’independence’ word is invoked as a part of that narrative. Yet when it comes to local government, it has seen a diminution of power and the taking away of its ‘independence’ since the creation of the Scottish Parliament 17 years ago. When you consider that 50 years ago councils raised 50% of their finance locally, it is maybe time we framed the debate about local government in Scotland as ‘autonomy’ versus ‘centralism’. This would reflect ‘local variation’ and the fact that doorstep issues in this campaign were really about services delivered by councils as opposed to rhetoric delivered by parliamentarians and their ‘wannabe’ successors.
Gordon Munro is Labour councillor for Leith ward on Edinburgh City Council