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Paddy Bort: Putting Local Democracy at the Heart of Scotland's Constitutional Future

I.  Scotland’s Local Democracy Deficit

Even without the referendum campaign, we probably would – or, at least, should – have a debate about local democracy in Scotland. Less than 40% of the Scottish electorate bothered to vote in last year’s local council elections. Even in Glasgow, where the SNP challenged Labour’s hegemony, with implications for the power struggle in Scotland and the looming independence referendum, and therefore generating considerable media interest locally, nationally and internationally, the turnout remained an appalling 32%, with some wards struggling to get past 20%.

At that time, the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s report, The Silent Crisis (2012), argued that Scotland has a local democracy deficit. Not only do we have far fewer elected councils per population and area than the rest of Europe, we also have far fewer elected councillors and candidates standing in council elections. The numbers speak for themselves:

Table 1: Contraction of Local Authorities
 Country1950  2001 Average Population
 Austria 4,065 2.359 3,437
 Denmark 1,303 276 19,381
 France 37,997 36,585 1,615
 Germany 33,932 13,854 5,931
 Italy      7,802 8,100 7,141
 Switzerland                3,097                        2,867                       2,488
 Norway     744 435 10,295
 Scotland 236 32 163,200
Table 2: Proportion of the Population Standing in Local Elections

Population (millions) 

 Candidates in all local elections 

 Proportion of Population Standing as Candidate 

 Finland 5.4     38,509 1 in 140
 Norway   4.8 59,505 1 in 81
 Baden-Württemberg   10.7 75,726 1 in 141
 Sweden 9.4 64,810 1 in 145
 Scotland 5.2 2,607 1 in 2,071
Table 3: Number of Candidates Contesting Each Seat

 CountryCandidates in All Local Elections   Number of Seats   Number of Candidates Contesting Each Seat
 Finland38,509 14,4123.7
 Norway  59,505 10,7855.5
 Baden-Württemberg  75,726 21,2793.6
 Sweden64,810 14,6314.4
 Scotland 2,607 1,2232.1

Local government in Scotland is, in large parts of the country, not local, and it is administration – executive – rather than decision-making governance. There are only 32 councils with a total of 1223 councillors for the whole country; community councils are, by and large, toothless, powerless and even more poorly supported than local authorities; distances – particularly in rural council areas – can be prohibitive. Highland Council, for example, covers an area as big as Belgium, with the population of Belfast, all represented by one council; towns like Kirkcaldy, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld are without their own governance structures. Nowhere else in Europe is such a situation remotely imaginable.  

As Aodh Quinlivan has argued in the Irish context, “the very strength of local government is the fact that it is local and accessible.” If the debate about local government is solely focused on economics, cost-cutting, efficiency-savings, the delivery of services, Quinlivan contended, 

we are accepting that embedded in this model is an implicit political subordination to the wishes of central government. The allocation of service delivery responsibilities is in the gift of the centre and local government’s competencies are clearly defined and limited by statute. Economy of scale inevitably emerges as the dominant idea with abolition of local authorities, mergers, and the creation of larger conurbations. Under this model, there is arguably no need for local government at all. Everything could be controlled by the centre with local administration.[1]

That, of course, totally neglects the autonomy of local communities, their freedom to making policy-choices, of having an input into the running of their own affairs, according to the principle of subsidiarity.  Quinlivan quotes John Collins who, back in 1954, called local government ‘a school of citizenship.’

Scottish local democracy, by contrast, has been compared to a ladder, with the lower rungs missing. It is excluding Scots from running their own local affairs, denying them access to democracy. What we have instead is the reduction of citizens to customers – a marketisation of local governance, exacerbated by out-sourcing and privatization of services. No wonder that turnout at local elections is catastrophically low – Scottish voters clearly experience local government as something they’re being excluded from and ignored by.

Arguably, the greatest failure of devolution since 1999 has been that it stopped at Holyrood. That was not originally envisaged – and the situation has not improved under a centralising SNP government: from the regressive council tax freeze (depriving local authorities of their only relevant means of influencing their own budget) to the introduction of a central police and fire service, the forced merger of colleges and the programme of court closures. Iain Macwhirter summed up Scotland’s local democracy deficit:

Local government is dying in Scotland, as turnout falls and central government increasingly diverts the local revenue and tells councils what to do.[2]

II. Timely Interventions

An interesting development over the summer of 2013 was the intervention, in three stages, of local government on behalf of their interests in what they perceive as a discourse limited, falsely, to the power relations between Westminster and Holyrood. First, the three island councils of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, added their demands for greater autonomy to the debate; then the cities chimed in; and, finally, COSLA installed a Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy with the remit of looking into the purpose of local government. 

The Herald made out ‘a fair wind for island councils,’[3] as the Scottish Government responded to the demands of the three island councils of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles – Our Islands – Our Future – with the ‘Lerwick Declaration’, installing a ministerial group under Local Government Minister Derek Mackay which is supposed to look into the possibility of devolving powers to the three councils – if the Scots vote Yes in next year’s referendum. Why is the offer conditional to a Yes vote? Most of the powers the island councils want are Holyrood’s to give.

So, what is it the islands demand? They want the status if the three island groups recognised in a new Constitutional Settlement and within the European Governance Framework. The Islands’ main demands are:

  • Control of the sea bed around the islands, allowing revenues currently paid to the Crown Estate to be channelled to local needs.
  • New grid connections to the Scottish mainland to allow world class wave, tidal, and wind energy resources to generate maximum benefits for the islands.
  • New fiscal arrangements to allow the islands to benefit more directly from the harvesting of local resources, including renewable energy and fisheries.[4]

In letters sent to the David Cameron and Alex Salmond, as well as to the leaders of the main opposition parties at Westminster and Holyrood, the island councils contextualised these key demands in a list of questions:

  • In the case of either a YES VOTE or NO VOTE for independence what special consideration, benefits or powers would you offer to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles?
  • Are you prepared to put together a manifesto for the islands and remote rural areas which defines a special status for the islands?
  • What is your vision for local authorities in Scotland following the referendum?
  • What is your commitment to the continued existence of the individual island authorities?
  • Will you consider some form of constitutional change for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles? Can we manage devolved budgets and decision-making in specific areas of interest?
  • How do you propose to ensure Article 174 of the Lisbon Treaty is enacted, regarding promoting cohesion and reducing disparities suffered by rural areas like Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles?
  • What will be your commitment to sustaining our 'really vulnerable' remote communities?
  • How do you plan to protect the unique culture of our islands?
  • Are you prepared to exempt the island groups and remote rural communities from the "Bedroom Tax/Spare Room Subsidy"?
  • If Scotland gains ownership of its marine related resource would you ensure Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles gain control of their own marine related resources?
  • Can you provide clarity on the implications for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles on both the YES and the NO vote?
  • How will you ensure that all voters understand the implicaitons of their vote?
  • Will you put something specific, with timescales, into your manifestos in relation to the above questions?[5]

The constitutional debate, Gary Robinson, the leader of Shetland Islands Council argued at a conference in September, offers “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our islands, and we will not shirk from the challenge.”[6]

By that time, Glasgow City Council had published a Report by its chief executive George Black, which contrasted the UK government‘s handing of greater powers to English city authorities “in recognition of their pivotal role in supporting economic growth” with Scotland “where there has been increasing centralisation of powers to the Scottish Government”.[7]

The report recommended that the council should seek assurances from the Scottish Government that if next year’s referendum brings a Yes vote, Glasgow should have “at least the same or greater powers as English cities and greater subsidiarity, given its significance as Scotland’s largest city”.[8] COSLA commented that the Report “fits perfectly with Cosla’s vision for greater powers for all councils and strengthening local democracy in Scotland as a whole”.[9]

And indeed COSLA, on 9 October, launched the new Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy in Scotland which, ahead of the independence referendum, is to look at reforming local government in Scotland.[10] Cosla president David O’Neill warned the “centralising” Scottish Government against future power grabs and called for the role of councils to be enshrined in law. Among the issues set out for the commission is the funding of local government. “The council tax freeze has been in place since 2007 and that is going to go on until the end of this parliament which will be 2017,” said O’Neill. “During that time, local government’s ability to raise its own finances has been reduced from only 20 per cent down to 14-ish per cent.” That, he argued, is “not a sustainable future.”[11]  

COSLA’s ‘vision for stronger local democracy in Scotland’ speaks of “local services that are built around local democratic choice.”  It rejects the increasing “centralisation” of services epitomised by the council tax freeze, the merger of the eight regional police forces into a single force, and the loss of powers on public health and economic development. “Over the decades,” according to David O’Neill, “we have moved away from the local aspect of almost everything. More and more services are being run by distant bureaucracies and often those services are being done to people rather then delivered with them.”[12] 

As the island councils, COSLA makes its intervention consciously as part of the referendum debate:

We are blatantly taking advantage of the fact that the referendum is taking place. Irrespective of the outcome, Scotland will never be the same again and that’s why we’re setting up the commission at this time.[13] 

In the COSLA document, O’Neill states that “if the Referendum cannot deliver better local outcomes for everyone in Scotland then it is not worth having. Simply repositioning power nationally will not tackle the complex multi-layered issues that communities face.”[14] 

The Commission is supposed to present some initial findings to the COSLA conference in March, and its final findings will be published before the referendum in September, setting out its position on the constitutional debate.

III. Local Democracy and the Referendum 

Local Government’s push for more powers is a welcome reminder, in the run up to the referendum, that devolution of more (or all) power to Holyrood is not the only item on the agenda, that devolution was never meant to stop at the Edinburgh Parliament, and that the Parliament’s founding principle of sharing power with the people has, so far, not extended to sharing power with local democracy. On the contrary, as Andy Wightman has commented: “At the same time as Scotland is on a journey to greater autonomy as a nation, the opposite is happening at the local level.”[15]

Could that be a reason why lofty talk of independence fails to resonate more outside the Holyrood bubble? “it’s hard to see,” Lesley Riddoch wote in her preface to The Silent Crisis, “how people deemed incapable of running their own towns and villages – uniquely in Europe – will confidently vote to run their own country.”[16]

What will the Scottish government’s White Paper say on the constitution of local democracy? And will Better Together – or the Scottish opposition parties – grasp the thistle and present a package designed to remake Scottish local democracy?

 ‘It would be premature for the island councils to raise a celebratory dram just yet but the wind is blowing in their direction, whatever the outcome of the referendum,’ was the Herald’s cautiously optimistic outlook.[17] It is very encouraging, indeed, that a discussion about the state of local democracy has become part of the referendum debate. Whichever way the vote goes net year, addressing the Scottish local democracy deficit ought to be a top priority of any Scottish government.  

Paddy Bort is the Director of the Parliamentary Programme at the Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh.

[1] Aodh Quinlivan, ‘Strength of local government is the fact that it is accessible’, Irish Examiner, 17 October 2012.

[2] Iain Macwhirter, ‘Let’s bring councils into line with elected mayors’, The Herald, 1 September 2011.

[3] ‘A fair wind for island councils’, The Herald (leader), 26 July 2013.

[4] <>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ‘Conference energises “Our Islands Our Future” campaign’, The Orcadian, 20 September 2013.

[7] See Craig Brown, ‘Report on Glasgow autonomy’, The Scotsman, 7 September 2013.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] <>.

[11] Scott MacNab, ‘Warning council tax rates freeze not sustainable’, The Scotsman, 7 October 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] <>.

[15] <>.

[16] <>.

[17] ‘A fair wind for island councils’. 

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