What would it take to turn Scottish Councils into Continental-style municipalities?
Last 16 May the Scottish Government and COSLA issued a joint statement on the progress of the Local Governance review.
Rather than a wholly new exercise this is an iteration of successive discussions held over the years such as the 2017 COSLA-SG Local Taxation, the 2014 COSLA-led Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, the Scottish Parliament’s own inquiry, previously the 2007 SG-COSLA Concordat as well as contributions from civic actors such as Reform Scotland (2012) or Nordic Horizons (2017) among many others.
In its recent statement government and local leaders agreed to continue the conversation as no legislation will be tabled during this parliamentary term. Barring, that is, the private members’ bill to incorporate the Council of Europe Charter of Local Self Government (1985, CETS No. 122) into Scottish legislation. Green MSP Andy Wightman has managed to get it consulted upon and lodged on December 2018 (with the explicit endorsement of 26 opposition MSPs, although in previous debates on this issue a broader cross-section of parliamentarians was in favour of this move).
The three UK local government jurisdictions (England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are the only ones in Europe (including Russia) that do not give any statutory role to this international treaty signed by the UK that has been in force since 1998 and aims to protect local government statutory powers and finances and its democratically elected nature from national or regional encroachment.
The rise of the managers
Scottish local government – arguably the longest uninterrupted municipal tradition in Europe – was not that different from the European mainland until the 1973 reform: the Royal Burghs reflected local identities; elected members had genuine executive powers; even their national voice, the Convention (which was established by an Act of Parliament), had acted as the proxy for the national assembly after the Union with England. All of that was replaced by local (and, until 1996, regional) units devised by national civil servants on efficiency and New Public Management logic. With this came Chief Executives carrying out many of the functions that mayors perform across the North Sea, the replacement of legalistic for managerial speak, agentisation (i.e. quangos) and arms-length bodies.
This had some clear benefits: less party-politicised and more evidence-based decisions, policy entrepreneurialism (Pazos-Vidal, 2018), clearly less institutionalised municipal corruption than elsewhere.
It had also significant costs: a clear disconnect between communities and the local authorities that represent them – the largest on average in Europe, with Highland being the largest municipality of the continent – as shown in comparatively very low local election turnout, a degradation of the notion of local self-government (i.e. local citizens free and able to take good as well as bad decisions) as evidenced by the common wisdom of the so-called “postcode lottery”, the direct (earmarking) or indirect (performance indicators, financial incentives) controls from the national level (Westminster or Holyrood), comparatively very low levels of fiscal self-sufficiency (only up to 15% of Council’s budgets are locally raised) – all this leading to an increasing nationalisation of local authority powers (regardless of who is in power).
Real or virtual communities?
Some mechanisms that have been devised to alleviate this trend such as Community Planning. And/or “outcomes” and “community.”
Even if Community Planning Partnerships can be good instruments to ensure that Council decisions are aligned to those of other bodies (such as national agencies) operating this notion of alignment locally is problematic: a strict reading of the Charter would suggest that this would tie local decision-making to organisations that are in fact answerable to upper levels of government or t have no democratically elected accountability.
The use of the term “community” is often used in lieu of and in preference to local government: clearly in Scotland they are not one and the same. In English-speaking countries there is a clear trend by national executives to directly appeal to “communities” in a somewhat idealised form, with ministries named after communities “and” local government.
Similarly, the notion of “outcome” is not politically neutral. All decisions in public life are political. Whoever defines a word owns it. So, if a national government defines autonomously “national outcomes” and then expects local ones to stem from those no matter how much “partnership” is offered, it remains a nationally driven discussion – even on matters that are and have been for decades, even centuries, the explicit competence of local government. Partnership working is a necessary ingredient of but not a substitute for statutory protection of local government and the right to be consulted by upper tiers of government – as defined by the Charter, also enshrined in article 4(2) of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) and the principle of subsidiarity (art. 5(3) TEU). Indeed the repatriation of EU powers as a result of Brexit will be a crucial test of all this (Pazos-Vidal 2018).
To put it simply: what we call local authorities in Scotland cannot really be equated with what is known as municipal government in most of Europe.
Back to European roots?
Does this matter? The last Council of Europe review of the state of local democracy in Scotland (2014) politely suggests that it should – if only due to the above-mentioned limited public engagement in local politics. More fundamentally, a country where all decisions are ultimately made at the centre would be make a poorer, homogenised, disempowered and even boring country. Under that logic, it is open to question whether what matters is merely that a (good) decision is made and not who or which body makes them.
Some alternatives have been advocated for decades. The classic one is to reintroduce the Scottish regions – notably Highland or as distinctive a region within Scotland as the Scottish polity is vis-à-vis the UK. However, this runs against the vertical direction of power: international experience shows that no emerging devolved polity wants sub-units that cut their country or region into big slices – a potential rival source of political power and democratic legitimacy. John Major famously said that the reason why Strathclyde Region had to be abolished was because it was a (Labour-led) “monstrosity” (McConnell, 2004).
It should be stressed that this is pure geopolitics, an imperative that is bound to happen regardless who is in power. This applies to Scotland as it does to Catalonia versus the four provinces imposed by Madrid, Flanders with regards to the five French-style provinces, same for the Italian regions and its provinces, etc.).
It is also not practical. The traditional socio-economic geography of Scotland is made up of three regions: Highlands and Islands, the Central Belt and the Southern Uplands or too few to be politically sustainable. The same issues arising that two tiers (such as the 1973-1996 regions and districts) result in alleged public confusion about who is accountable would be even more evident as, with devolution, would be three levels of government in Scotland.
The trend as evidenced by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, Scottish Islands Act 2018, or even the recent launch of the South of Scotland Enterprise Agency, is to prefer optimising current structures than wholesale reform. Quite tellingly, the 2014 Scottish Parliament review clearly opposes devolution of powers to councils but suggests that councils should devolve them further below – without creating districts or intra-municipal statutory authorities as they exist in, for instance, Portugal or Italy (Pazos-Vidal and McAteer 2014, Pazos-Vidal 2019).
So what can be done?
As argued for the Local Governance Review, instead of creating new tiers, what could be done is multiplying the number of local authorities so that their size more closely reflects the human geography of where people really live. In this respect it is quite striking how the Travel To Work areas map (ONS, 2011) reflecst the boundaries of the old Scottish districts (except in Glasgow and Edinburgh whose bigger influence and spread require a form of city-regional planning).
This does not mean, however, that these new Councils would have to multiply senior managers, let alone have chief executives. In fact it should be perfectly feasible that some of the latter powers return to local mayors with CEOs replaced by municipal secretaries. Equally, some functions can be shared regionally or nationally but this not mean that they need to be nationalised by Holyrood. The fears of increased corruption can be addressed by expanding the already powerful supervisory powers upon local government (Audit Scotland, Standards Commission, etc.).
Tinkering with boundaries is something that is fancied by some commentators (most recently by Rae and Hamilton, 2018) . However, this would ignore three fundamental barriers to change:
First, two generations of political and managerial classes have grown used to the current state of affairs so regardless of their keenness to change there are strong incentives to keep the status quo. The last reorganisation cost up to £400m in 1996 (McConnell, 2004).
Second, local government would have to be prepared to consider a grand bargain of the existing powers (e.g. should schools be a local power, should they be subject to national control, should power be devolved to the schools themselves?) – a potentially risky game for local government.
Third, and more fundamentally, changing administrative structures without changing political ones is meaningless: if more power is given on paper to a local polity but the local elected members remain dependent on very hierarchical and centralised political parties this would do little to increase local autonomy. Scotland (and Westminster) is a case in point where the parliamentary party is effectively the national party. Unlike in other countries, local politicians, even the leaders of large councils, have no particular role on national party executives in a way that is remotely reflective of their nominal power. While bringing to Scotland what is known elsewhere as (petty, self-serving) “local barons” is certainly not desirable, unless the internal governance of political parties reflects the territorial division of powers any structural change is clearly bound to fail.
The author writes in a purely personal capacity and this piece does not reflect the view of his employers. His views can be explored further in his latest book: Subsidiarity and EU Multilevel Governance Actors Networks and Agendas (Routledge 2019)