Tuesday 1 May 2012

What's the Point of Local Councils?

This Thursday is election day here in Scotland for our local councils.   As is the norm there has not been much coverage in the media.  There are very few, hardly any, genuinely local media outlets these days.  So any coverage is framed in national terms.  The national leaders of the main parties get interviewed and each party produces a national manifesto.  A national manifesto for local elections!  The results too will mainly be analysed for what they tell us about the respective national standings of each party.  And all this on an expected very low turnout.  

The fact that relatively few people bother to vote should lead to some serious questioning about our system of local government.  All the main parties pay lip service to local government and some occasionally wax lyrical about a vibrant local democracy as a sign of a healthy society.  But then do precisely nothing about it.  So what is wrong with our current set-up for local government?  I have two major criticisms of the present regime - it is neither local nor does it allow for proper government.

Local can of course mean different things to different people. For those of us who live in one of our four cities, then the local council probably does fairly accurately reflect most people's notion of local.  Even though there are distinct areas within each city, for example, Lochee or Broughty Ferry in Dundee, most people think of Dundee as the place where they live.  However this is most unlikely to be the case in most of the other local councils.  Take our neighbouring council - Angus, which though smaller in population is very much larger area wise.  Though there is some sense of belonging to the old county of Angus, most of the population are much more likely to identify with their own burgh, and there are seven of them in Angus.  The good people of Carnoustie for example are probably not that interested in what happens in Montrose or Brechin.  Yet the one single council is responsible for all services throughout the county.  It must be even worse in Highland Council, which covers half the landmass of Scotland!  Just how this one council can be local for both the citizens of Fort William on the west coast and the citizens of Wick near the northernmost part of the mainland is beyond me.  And probably beyond the residents of these two lovely burghs.  For most people I would imagine that local refers to the place or immediate area in which they live.  And our current councils do not, other than the four cities, represent this level of localness.

As regards government, there are two aspects to this which seem to me to be crucial.  The first is the power to raise money and the second is the power to decide on what services, if any, should be provided.  This to me is what government is all about - taking key decisions on the raising and spending of taxes.  Under our current system, local councils have very little of either power.

Something like in the region of 80% of the funding for local councils comes directly from central government in Edinburgh.  The remaining 20% or so is mainly raised via the council tax, a levy on property which is deeply unpopular and has been frozen for the past five years, and is to remain frozen for the next four years.  Which means that effectively local councils have no say whatsoever in how much money they can raise.  Not much in the way of local decision making here.

It is pretty much the same when it comes to the services provided by our councils.  The two main ones which take up most of the money and employ most of the staff, are Education and Social Work.  In both cases, councils have very little, if any, scope for decision taking.   Dundee Council for example cannot decide to start primary schooling at the age of seven instead of five.  It cannot decide to reduce the school leaving age to 14.  All the key decisions relating to schools and social work are taken at the national level.  This includes class sizes, qualifications for staff and salaries.  Now nearly all of this is a good thing.  Hardly anyone in Scotland wants 28 different schooling systems or social work standards.  This then begs the questions - why do we continue to pretend that they are in any real sense local decisions?  It doesn't happen in health, where we have a national health service for the whole of Scotland.  We are also about to create a single police and emergency service for the whole of the country.  Local councils have in reality very little discretion in education or social work.  Their main task is to manage what is in effect a national service in their area.  

Why not recognize this reality and hive these two services off from local councils and entrust them to a national body.  There would then be no need for councils to cover such a large area as the Highlands or Angus for example.  We could return local government back to the places people feel is local to them.  Shorn of education and social work, they could be given the responsibility to raise most of their funds.  Perhaps reversing the current situation to one in which local councils raise 80% of their funds and only 20% comes from central government.  Councils could then have real decision making powers over issues that matter to their residents.  Let us bring back real government to our councils and let us make them truly local.

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