Starting with its inception, the Scottish Parliament has played double standards, especially since the SNP came to power. Whereas the first eight years marked time with an unambitious Labour-led Scottish Executive sitting on their well paid behinds, the SNP have at least taken the jalopy out on the road to see what it could do.
But there is one glaring exception covering a third of their entire budget that stilll has cobwebs all over it. Starting well with John Swinney’s great-sounding Concordat with its ‘Parity of Esteem’, local government has been run into the long grass as an issue and democracy in Scotland suffers as a result. Our present Scottish Government shows double standards: it scoffs at what Westminster regards generous devolution of powers under Smith, yet it has increased their stranglehold over councils.
It dates from the ill-considered Tory reforms of 1976 that abolished burghs and any real local responsibility, creating eight behemoths of regional councils. By Tory lights, these went badly awry, largely falling under Labour control. So they had another go in 1996, gerrymandering them small enough for Tories to have a chance to control at least some of them (the real reason why Glasgow was stripped of its less-Labour leafy suburbs).
While Tories were content that even Parish Councils in England had fiscal powers, their more colonial approach in Scotland emasculated those very burghs with which most people identified as ‘their’ community. The way the Scottish Local Government Boundary Commission has operated since in drawing wards, fixating on voter numbers and shibboleths like deprivation while driving a coach and horses through preservation of such community identity has only made things worse.
So after forty years of flawed one-size-fits-all diktat from both Westminster and Holyrood, Reform Scotland has done what CoSLA failed to do: make a case for local government to be just that and not just a supine instrument of central government policy. Whether on PPI or Council Tax freeze councils have had their arms up their backs the whole time. Reform Scotland’s briefing argues:
- Local authorities in Scotland are not fully in control of any of their own tax income.
- Local autonomy is undermined when councillors have no real control over taxation.
- By at least devolving council tax and non-domestic rates in full, councils would have greater room for manoeuvre to take local priorities/circumstances into account.
So, not devolution in full, nor any attempt to address the currently skewed scale of what constitutes local democracy, but at least the same argument of being responsible fully for what they spend that the present Scottish Government argues should apply to Holyrood.
Consider what happens now and the case is overwhelming. Say a council wants to provide early years support in its education and that would cost the equivalent of a 1% rise in its total budget. If this is not government policy there is little chance that their component of funding would increase to cover that. But since 80% of funding comes from them and only 20% from council tax, it would take a 5% rise in council tax to fund the initiative. Ergo, nobody sticks their head above the parapet.
Meantime government policy continues to be doled out in terms of specific grants, such as the Safer Streets initiative. The result is that, while potholes go unfilled and road markings are left to fade, safety signs, traffic calming and traffic studies keep rolling to ensure that year’s grant is fully spent as they are legally unavailable for anything else.
Devolution was never supposed to stop at Holyrood. As well as council tax, business rates are collected by local authorities. But they are set and controlled by Holyrood. This means that not only the rate, but to whom it applies and discount schemes are controlled centrally and cannot reflect local requirements adequately. Even though the level of grants to local authorities ring-fenced for specific purposes was cut significantly under the 2007 Concordat, neither of Swinney’s successors in charge of local government has since moved an inch to reinforce its supposed ‘parity of equals’.
The respected Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (CIPFA) 2014 submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee highlighted the problem of a lack of local control over, and accountability for, local taxation:
“We recommend: That as part of a revised system of funding, there should also be a review of the proportion of resources which can be raised locally; as part of this:
• Responsibility for, and control of local taxation should sit clearly at the local level; and
• The level of resources raised from local taxation should promote accountability to local citizens for local choices and incentivise growth of the local economy, attract investment and deliver positive outcomes for the local area.”
It appears a no-brainer to those outside the bubble of political self-interest that this is both in the spirit of devolution that created the Scottish Parliament in the first place and that this would go far in reasserting the lively link that once existed between voters and those responsible for most of the services on which they depend in their daily lives—schools, roads, planning, recreation, culture, social support, cleansing, etc, etc.
Reform Scotland’s proposals deserve serious consideration and require implementation if the slide in voter interest is to be halted and—equally important the unsung work of local volunteers in building nd sustaining their communities is not to be undermined. Those proposals should be seized as an opportunity and implemented in full, viz:
- Devolve Council Tax in full; this means complete control over local tax, including rates and bands. This would even allow individual councils to retain, reform or replace Council Tax with another form of local taxation.
- Devolve Business Rates in full. Councils would then have an incentive to provide an attractive economic environment, but the decision how best to achieve that would be up to them. Given big-is-beautiful myopia displayed by both Scottish Enterprise and VisitScotland in recent years, an antidote to their baleful influence is needed.
- Once further powers are devolved from Westminster, there is a strong case for devolving further taxes, and perhaps welfare powers, to councils.
- Give Councils the ability to innovate. Whether on a bed tax or parking charges, let local councillors try new ideas and face the voters with results achieved.
- Publish local authority information within GERS: future editions of Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland should separate Scottish Government income/expenditure from those of councils to allow figures to be compared.
So the ball is in the SNP government’s court. But will the affable, capable but largely unknown Marco Biagi have the clout/support to make a move? Given party discipline displayed to date and the SNP’s aversion to unnecessary controversy, the runes do not look good. But they are savvy politicos who know that discretion breeds over-caution which breeds inertia which breeds ossification which leads to the political wilderness.
Just look at Scottish Labour as an object lesson.