Since the referendum, the NO campaign have exuded “well, that’s settled”, based on their 10%-margin win. But actually, they have been keeping their heads down because debate around any agreed devolution settlement—such as the Smith Commission is expected to come up with—has suddenly become messy. Squaring the disjointed policy circle that Westminster parties have slapped together will be hard to merge within six weeks.
In the meantime, what would cement the SNP and other YES-supporting parties credibility is to pre-empt Curran’s ‘radical’ bid for resuscitation of Scottish Labour. Whether they can rediscover ‘core Labour values’ here while Milliband outflanks Tories and UKIP on immigration and Europe remains to be seen. But how to pre-empt? Simples. If more devolution is coming to Scotland, let’s devolve much more to local level.
Now that independence is parked, the SNP in general—(meaning John Swinney and Derek Mackay in particular) have an opportunity to reach out from the hothouse of Holyrood and engage civic Scotland. Lifting the dead hand of Labour from Scotland’s city halls is long overdue and full of potential. But, while all parties use their 1,200+ councillors as campaigning footsoldiers and locally trusted spokespeople, they have never given them scope to bring democracy closer to people in a way a tenth that number of MSPs bever could. It is well worth trying and should be done in phases:
Town Hall Devo: Phase I—Do Now
- Council budgets are mostly not raised in the local area—other than council tax, frozen now for 7 years, and some fees. John Swinney needs to take his foot off the councils’ collective neck and let them freely set council tax rates again
- Council tax banding itself is a joke: houses worth £200k pay as much as £2m or £20m mansions. It is regressive, hitting the less well off more. By doubling the bands and setting a ‘mansion tax’ flat percentage above £500k (see Ma Faither’s Howff Revisited) this could raise 25% (as opposed to under 20%) of council spending.
- Business rates may be collected locally but all go to Holyrood for ‘redistribution’. If half the £1.6bn raised were retained by councils, another 5% of their income would be raised locally and they would have far more incentive to grow local businesses.
Town Hall Devo: Phase II—Do Soon
- Planning—especially strategic planning—is a mess and demeaned by unseemly tussles between mandarins and developers. Local councils get told what to do and the shoddy city- and town-scapes we have been building are the result. City regions (no more than a half dozen) must be defined and given the power to plan infrastructure, transport, power and economic strategy as well as housing allocation. This will involve bulleting the largely ineffectual and remote Scottish Enterprise, HIE, NHS Trusts and regional transport authorities.
- Formation through 1. of incipient City Region Authorities who should gear up to handle all major public services delivered in their area, starting with NHS, business development and transport, followed by water, police and fire services.
- Empowerment of CRAs to control train, bus, air, harbour and ferry services within their region, including route planning, single-ticketing, timetable co-ordination and ensuring freedom from monopolies commission interference
- Comprehensive attempt to revive community decision-making at ward level through community councils, area partnerships, community wellbeing that make binding decisions on council departments.
- Statutory requirement on public bodies to maximise the social, environmental and economic benefits of procurement and to make public all land held on their books for possible use for affordable housing.
Town Hall Devo: Phase III—Do Next
- Local Government Re-organisation on the basis of the half-dozen city regions become the principal elected body controlling most local government functions in their area and raising at least half of the revenue spent via council tax and local income tax. As well as the functions listed in II/1 above, education, social work, building maintenance and cultural services are controlled by a democratic body of no more than 50 councillors elected by proportional representation and sitting in the regional city.
- In parallel with this, those communities which opt to do so revive the burgh—a democratic body of 4-6 councillors and similar number of employees managing a clearly defined community, such as a school catchment area. Burghs would have responsibility for local planning, housing, basic local services (e.g. cleansing) contracted out, retail business, parks, recreation and tourism. Burghs would be allocated a fraction of council and business taxes levied in their area and have the right to vary the amount levied within that fraction. Consideration should be given to ensuring burgh councils are non-party-political, highly visible and fully accountable.
- Villages, rural areas and smaller towns not minded to re-form burghs would be administered by a department of the city region. Cities themselves would be special cases where considerably more functions might come under a body intermediates between burghs and city regions.
Whether the above will restore local democracy depends on how it is done. If it is done grudgingly and the Scottish Ministers handle the matter as they currently do with their one-size-fits-all planning cudgels, then it will be illusory devolution; local communities will feel duped into believing they are trusted with real responsibility.
But if local authorities really were given parity of esteem talked about in 2007 and empowered with real control and flexibility about how national policy was implemented, then the differences between Inverary and Inverure or between Hawick and Halkirk could be a driver of new ideas, a source of home-grown innovation that engages citizens with politics they connect to and understand. Otherwise the Holyrood bureaucrat will be seen as no more sensitive than the Westminster mandarin and an MSP as much a suit with a mouth as any London-fixated MP.