Glasgow City Council

Local Government: Time to Ditch the Whitehall Model?

Published: 5 September 2019

In his contribution to the devolution at twenty series, Neil McGarvey of the University of Strathclyde examines the effect of devolution on local government, arguing that it is time for change.

Since 1999 devolution has fundamentally transformed the structure, functions and operations of all of Scotland’s key political institutions: executive, legislature, civil service, political parties and the NHS. The trajectory of local government, in contrast, has undergone little change.

There were 32 local councils in 1999, there are 32 in 2019. Those 32 local authorities were dependent on central government for the vast bulk of expenditure in 1999. They remain so in 2019. Local councils in 2019 are the same constitutionally weak creatures of statute as they were in 1999. The leaders of Scotland’s councils are largely anonymous out-with (and often within) their own council areas, as they were in 1999. The political frameworks underpinning Scottish local government in 2019 reflect the same top-down centralised control model of governance inherited in 1999. The dynamic and trajectory of central-local government relations post-devolution has continued down the same path of incremental centralisation.

The inherited Whitehall model of governance places emphasis on policy and ‘guidance’ coming from ‘the centre’ with local councils ‘fitting in’ and being driven by Scottish Government strategic direction. The differing professional basis (generalist versus specialist) of central and local bureaucracy creates and sustains distance and potential for mutual distrust. A culture of deference, direction seeking, statutory obligation, compliance results in embedded wariness as part of Scottish local government’s institutionalised bureaucratic and political culture. Central control and regulation is the default political setting, with appeal to national Scottish policy standards and outcomes.

Devolution has not reversed the pre-devolution locally debilitating trajectory of national accretion and centralisation. Post-devolution this has been underpinned by both Labour and SNP political philosophies that emphasise centralist models of statecraft. The former driven by universalism underpinned by central regulation, the latter a somewhat similar ‘national’ standards and outcomes philosophy. The surprising acquiescent of local party political actors over the decades is perhaps indicative of the dominance of Labour and the SNP, their hierarchical structures and the inducement of loyalties within both.

Today Scottish local councils are pale shadows of the dynamic post-war institutions that were part of the development and consolidation of the welfare state in Scotland, the planning of regions, cities and suburbs. They were confronting and responding to key challenges in the fields of infrastructure, utilities, health, education and social care need. Today, era defining post-devolution debates around Scotland’s constitutional future and the UK’s exit from the European Union take place with little or no consideration of local government’s place in the Scottish polity.

One of the key post-devolution changes was the introduction of STV for local elections. It has made minority and coalition governance the new norm in Scotland’s councils but its impact on wider representation, participation and democracy has been somewhat negligible. Local elections remain a preview, a sideshow or barometer of a forthcoming ‘first order’ election for Parliament in Edinburgh or London. In any case, Scotland’s mainstream political parties do not have significantly different ways of ‘doing’ local government. There is a high degree of consensus around the basic parameters of what a local council should do –collaborative approaches which emphasise shared capacity, co-production, prevention, raising aspirations and reducing inequalities and deprivation enjoy cross-party support.

Post-devolution reflections and re-thinking on the role and purpose of local government in mainstream Scottish politics are notable only for their absence. Whilst the NHS is talked of with pride and joy, local government is often discussed through a more negative template and prism of thought. In the dynamics of post-devolution budgetary politics, local government has often been the last in line. 

There are however murmurings of a change of direction. The recently launched local governance review suggests the potential for some wider new conversation and reconsideration of local government’s place in Scottish politics.   This is welcome – asking deeper and more politically challenging philosophical and normative questions about what future local democracy should look like is long overdue. Previous reviews have yielded little change, the hope is this one will be different.

If local government is to merit the title it must do more than simply administer and implement Scottish Government policy. Scottish local councils have responsibility for the present and future welfare, economic, social and cultural vibrancy of the communities they serve. A vibrant Scottish democracy requires local pluralism, representation, participation and deliberation as a counterweight to excessive centralism.

Devolution in 1999 was largely driven by a Scottish desire to protect and nurture the post-war welfare settlement. Scottish local government was a significant part of that home rule campaign with CoSLA providing operational support for the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s. Local councils remain key welfare state institutions in providing services that underpin welfare, community and society. Post-devolution centralisation, austerity and fiscal squeeze has weakened the basis of many key local welfare services. If they are to reverse decades of decline and marginalisation it is perhaps time local councils rediscovered their wider campaigning and political role.

This blog draws on two book chapters by the author: (2019) ‘British Political Tradition and Scottish Local Government’ in G. Hassan (ed.) The Story of the Scottish Parliament: The First Two Decades Explained (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) and (forthcoming) ‘Local Government’ in M. Keating and C. McAngus (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

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