This blog was first published at Bella Caledonia on 29 September 2011

UPDATE 25 November 2012 Read the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s excellent report Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland for a detailed exposition on why we need more not less local government in Scotland.

The key argument in favour of devolution in 1999 was that we would be able to find Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. It seems self-evident today that Scotland’s laws should be made not by British MPs in Westminster, but by MSPs in Scotland and that the House of Lords should have no say in such matters either.

Arguments for greater devolution or indeed outright independence reflect an extension of the idea that power should reside as close as possible to the people and that decisions that can be made locally, should be. However, at the same time as Scotland is on a journey to greater autonomy as a nation, the opposite is happening at the local level.

Political and economic power in Scotland are becoming increasingly centralised. Local authorities are being asked to freeze the only source of finance they have any control over. The debate (in as much as there is one) is about reducing the number of local authorities and making them more “efficient”. The SNP manifesto had 41 sections. Not one talked about local government (to be fair, none of the other parties said very much about the topic either).

Yet if autonomy is to mean anything, the process must logically continue beyond the national level. Even with devolution, the UK is one of Europe’s most centralised states in Europe with very little autonomy at local government level. Around 80% of local government finance comes from the block grant from the Scottish government accounting for around one third of all devolved spending in Scotland.

The remaining 20% comes from business rates (the levels of which are centrally set and the tax itself centrally collected and redistributed) and the council tax (which is frozen). Scotland’s local authorities thus control virtually none of the revenue raised to finance their expenditure beyond library fines and parking charges. In Denmark, by contrast. local government raises over 60% of its revenue from local taxes and Sweden raises around 70%. Local government in Scotland is neither local not does it govern. It is basically little more than a centrally-funded and directed service delivery vehicle.

A recent House of Commons committee report on the balance of power between central and local government in England noted that

The relationship between central and local government in England deviates from the European norm in at least three areas – the level of constitutional protection, the level of financial autonomy, and the level of central government intervention. All serve to tilt the balance of power towards the centre.” (para38)

Much the same could be said about this relationship in Scotland. The European norm that the Committee referred to is one where the basic unit of local government is genuinely local as the table illustrates.

Country No. municipalities Median population Sq. km.
France 36781 380 11
Germany 12013 6844 15
Spain 8112 564 35
Italy 8100 2343 22
Belgium 589 11265 40
Norway 431 4439 465
Sweden 290 15039 672
Scotland 32 115000 990

Of these seven major European countries, Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of local governance. Even Sweden, with nine million citizens spread over an area six times the size of Scotland, has a more localised system of government covering an average of two-thirds the land area and with a median population of 15,039 citizens compared with Scotland’s 115,000.

Were Scotland’s parishes to be resurrected as the basic unit of local government, then the number of Scottish municipalities would be 871 with an average population of 4998 – in other words bang in the middle of the European norm.

The UK signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government in June 1997. Over it’s 18 articles it highlights the importance of local government where “Public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen“ (Article 4(3)). Yet the trend since local government re-organisation in 1975 has been to concentrate power in fewer and fewer larger units – precisely the opposite of what the Charter advocates. In the course of this, most of Scotland’s 196 burghs have lost all of the governance they enjoyed for (in many cases) 500 years.

The lack of any real local governance represents not simply a democratic deficit but a problem of practical politics. Scotland is replete with a wide variety of definitions of community for a whole host of different purposes. Community Council areas may be the closest we come to a geography of community but coverage is patchy, boundaries unclear and powers non-existent.

Whenever a new initiative comes along (for example the recently announced Coastal Communities Fund), the first problem is almost always an agonised debate about how to define community. This is not a problem facing the coastal communities of Sirdal, Flekkefjord or Songdalen in the Norwegian county of Vest-Agder.

The lack of hard-wired governance has led to chaotic and incoherent policy and decision making at the local level. The opportunity costs in terms of efficiency in service delivery and design are quite probably far greater than the modest additional direct costs of having a real system of local government.

If you travel through Italy, France or Denmark and ask anybody which “community” they belong to they will tell you that they live in Y (a commune in the Somme with 89 inhabitants) or Saint Colombe or Rudersdal. You will struggle to find many people in Scotland who can name the parish they live in. This is thus also a problem of connectedness to place and the sense of who we are and who we share the future with. In a system of representative democracy, it is vital that the first link in the chain is local, rooted and resilient.

Today, proponents of the Scotland Bill, fiscal autonomy and independence all argue for greater revenue raising powers for the Scottish Parliament. Curiously, however, none of these arguments says anything about local government. Recently, Rob Gibson MSP launched a consultation in his Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency on how to decentralise services in local government. It is one of a very few signs that some new thinking is emerging about local governance.

Many European countries enshrine local govt in their constitution. In Germany, for example, Article 28(1) of the Basic Law guarantees the existence of elected councils for counties and municipalities. In any new constitutional settlement it is vital that the question of how we are governed at the local level is addressed. If it is not, then independence may simply mean the perpetuation of national elite rule.

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