Local government remains, but as a footnote in the Scottish constitutional debate

Published: 1 December 2014

Neil McGarvey discusses the incorporation of local government in Smith Commission submissions from some of Scotland’s political parties.

Local government does not feature heavily in debates on changing the institutional configuration of Scotland’s constitutional settlement. Indeed the incorporation of local government into some of the Smith Commission submissions from Scotland’s political parties appear to be something of an afterthought to the thrust of the submissions. Little, if any, serious consideration is given to any knock on implications for local government and democracy. Local government remains but a footnote in the Scottish constitutional debate.

The SNP suggest that ‘enhanced devolution enables decisions to be taken closer to the people affected. A significant transfer of additional responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament will provide the opportunity to devolve these powers further to councils and communities’. However, there are only three paragraphs on local government in the 34-page submission and there is little, if any, evidence from the first 15 years of devolution that the ‘opportunity to devolve … powers further to councils’ is one likely to be taken up by those at the centre of Scottish politics in the near future.  In any case the core of new powers the Smith Commission has suggested be devolved – income taxation, welfare, and the like are not part of local government’s remit.

Scottish Labour, like virtually all political parties enduring a period of opposition, have recently rediscovered the virtue of local government. It is ‘a continuing and valued part of our constitutional settlement’. Local government and democracy should be empowered and enhanced. It is, however, vague on the details of how. The Scottish Conservatives likewise suggest a reversal of centralization and greater role for local government and civil society.

The Green Party make perhaps the most ‘localist’ submission calling for entrenchment of local democracy in Scotland and new public participation mechanisms. The Liberal Democrats make no direct reference to local government but do suggest, ‘power should be dispersed further to communities and not hoarded either in Westminster or Holyrood’.

The politics of the Commission’s creation and timetable unfortunately has resulted in little, if any, scope for local consultation and engagement and consideration of proposals knock on effect on the internal governance of Scotland. COSLA suggest that ‘Scotland has been on a 50 year journey in which the default position has been to take powers and accountability to the centre’ and that ‘Scotland has become the most centralized country in Europe’. With no constitutional protection or guaranteed responsibilities, Scottish local councils remain in a politically vulnerable position.

There has been a ‘creeping centralization’ post-devolution with increased audit, regulation and oversight and policies such as the nationalisation of police, fire services, ‘single’ outcome agreements, and the freezing of council tax. This coupled with the austerity agenda has left little scope for local government. Implementing statutory services is administering, not governing.

The Smith Commission is very specific about new devolution powers. It is very non-specific about devolution downwards. There appears to be a duality of thinking amongst the parties. Whilst they campaign and deliberate on the extent of more powers over taxation and expenditure for the Scottish Parliament, the direction of travel on local government has been to weaken local capacity for autonomous decision-making. Whilst national politicians talk of creating a ‘powerhouse parliament’ there is little consideration of its impact on local authorities. If the devolution of more tax and financial authority will enhance the power, effectiveness and political authority of the Scottish Parliament, why not also local government and democracy?

The language of localism is evident in each party's submission. However, given the evidence since 1999 there must be some sceptism whether it would necessarily be followed through. The Smith Commission report does suggest that there is ‘a strong desire to see the principle of devolution extended further, with the transfer of power from Holyrood to local communities’ and suggests that ‘this is an issue that will require significant further thought and discussion’. Councils can act as important counter-weights to excessive centralism in Scottish governance.  It may be idea that while Scotland’s constitutional relationship with the rest of the UK is being considered, we might also reflect on the dynamics of Scottish governance at a local level and intergovernmental relations within Scotland.

This blog is an abbreviated extract from Future of the UK and Scotland's e-book: BEYOND SMITH: Contributions to the continuing process of Scottish devolution

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