In the second of our series on local government’s past, present and future from the Mercat Group of former local council CEOs, George Thorley urges much greater voter turnout in May’s crucial elections than the 47% we saw in 2017. Voting is a fundamental right, he argues – and it matters for more reasons than we probably know.
It’s councillors and councils that take decisions that affect not just what happens today in your area but what your area will look like for the next generation and in some cases for generations to come.
We get limited opportunities to exercise our basic democratic right to vote for politicians to represent our interests. The next time will be in 80 days: the local council elections on May 5.
Councils are important. Together Scotland’s 32 councils spend £20bn each year, employ over 250,000 people and deliver over 200 individual services. Crucially, unlike Scotland’s quangos, councils are locally accountable so in voting for one of over 1200 councillors you will be having your say on what happens in your village, town or city.
You will also be sending an important message to the Scottish government that local democratic accountability is important to you – especially given Holyrood’s determination to take ever increasing control of the design and delivery of local public services.
But I Don’t Actually Use any Council Services!
Arguably, it’s virtually impossible to gain zero benefit from the vast range of services and facilities councils provide. Remember that they run nursery, primary and secondary schools; care for the elderly, vulnerable children and families; are responsible for town and country planning, housing, roads, footpaths and street lighting, licencing, bridges, ferries, factories – and a lot more.
Councils can also look to the future and set down their ambitions for ten, 20 or 30 years hence. They are able to use their powers and financial and human resources and make key investment decisions for the future. A few headline examples of investments spanning many decades include:
- establishing Edinburgh University;
- creating Edinburgh’s New Town;
- the Loch Katrine Water Supply;
- Glasgow’s suburban rail system;
- the Tay, Forth and Erskine Road Bridges;
- the Orkney Isles Ferry Service;
- the Spinal Route in the Western Isles;
- the Dundee Waterfront Initiative;
- the Armadillo, Hydro, SEC and Glasgow’s Waterfront
So, it’s councillors and councils that take decisions that affect not just what happens today in your area but what your area will look like for the next generation and in some cases for generations to come.
It’s what this upcoming election is about. Local issues/local solutions and who best to deliver them.
Register, Apply and Vote
To register to vote go to www.gov.uk/register-to-vote before April 18 and get your name on the voters’ register.
On May 5 vote in person at your local polling station. You’ll be given a ballot paper which identifies the people that want to be your councillor. You can vote for them in order of preference i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.
Alternatively you can get your ballot paper sent to your home. Contact your local Valuation Joint Board before April 19 and ask to be registered as a postal voter. You’ll receive a ballot paper. Fill it in and return it before May 5.
Our freedom to vote for our elected representatives has been hard won. So is the need for local democratic accountability.
That’s why voting on May 5 is so important.
The Scottish Government excoriates Westminster and the Johnson government for a “power grab” post-Brexit: centralising powers and responsibilities handed back to the UK from the EU to the detriment of the devolved administrations that previously enacted such policies and regulations. At the same time, however, Holyrood is squeezing Scotland’s 32 local councils financially while limiting their political room for manoeuvre, Sceptical Scot editors argue. The Mercat Group sets out below the role and achievements of Scottish local authorities in the face of this other “power grab” – and makes the case for restoring local democracy.
Friends, Romans and citizens
In this our third article (on the Knowledge Hub) we pose the headline question above and recall from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” the frustration of Reg, Leader of the People’s Front of Judea, at the litany of positive answers from his followers.
Transpose this scene to modern Britain and ask a random group of citizens the question:P “What has your council ever done for you?” I suspect few would say that councils deliver local solutions to local issues with imagination, innovation and enthusiasm, within a system that is directly democratically accountable to local people.
Irrespective of its changing shape, range of functions or geographical cover, the core of local government is the responsibility to recognise local issues, to decide on their relative priority and then to act.
Today’s catalogue of responsibilities and activities, usually outlined in an A –Z of services, can embrace over 200 discreet activities ranging from suburban rail systems; tramways; airports and ferry services; to running theatres; golf courses and skateboard parks; creating science parks and building international conference centres – and routine services like meals on wheels and breakfast clubs in schools.
Not every Council does them all but the above examples highlight the ability of Councils to apply fresh thinking to solve local problems and embrace local opportunities – including the key ability to innovate and deliver with speed.
Foresight, innovation and drive are not new and the history of our cities and towns is a testament to the inherent capability of councils to imagine a different future for their populations and their localities and then to set about delivering that vision. An Edinburgh case study takes us back to 1583.
Edinburgh Case Study
Two Edinburgh Town Council’s decisions have helped shape the city’s modern character.
The first was the creation of Edinburgh University. In 1583 the town council secured a royal charter to use the redundant friaries and kirks “to house professors of the schools of grammar, humanity and the languages, philosophy, theology, medicine and law, or any other liberal sciences.” The Council funded the university’s first principal with the first 47 student entrants graduating in 1587. Today the university has 45615 (f/t and p/t) students and employs 15,512.
In 1766, fed up with the overcrowding, pestilence and disease of the existing town, the Council imagined an entirely different future for their people and looked to the north of the town for a solution. The Council held a competition and selected James Craig’s design for arguably the UK’s first New Town. The Council enabled the construction of the New Town and built the infrastructure connecting the Old and New Towns. Further phases followed of what is now celebrated as one of the country’s best known UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The above study highlights the initiative and drive of the municipal ancients of Auld Reekie yet it is but one example. Much of the infrastructure on which our modern towns and cities are based similarly depends on the vision of councils in the 1800s and early 1900s which built water supplies; sewerage systems; hospitals; swimming pools; public baths and wash houses; tramways; abattoirs; electricity and household gas supplies; fire and police services.
In those far-off days the role of central government was quite different. Arguably, it was not until after the Second World War that central government chose to shoulder responsibility for tackling major societal issues. Local government was then seen as an essential partner in helping modernise and rebuild the country. Councils were accordingly given key roles including re-housing the population. The response? Building around 4.5m council homes. With enhanced town planning powers, councils also led in the comprehensive redevelopment of their towns and cities by creating modern town centres; road systems and enhanced public transport. We also saw a wave of new primary schools, secondary schools and further education colleges. Road bridges across the Tay; Forth and Clyde estuaries were built.
The increasingly inadequacy, however, of the mid-1920’s structure of local government led in the late 1960s to both the Redcliffe-Maud (England) and the Wheatley (Scotland) Commissions recommending substantial changes. Redcliffe-Maud’s suggested 58 unitary councils survived only in part while Wheatley’s two-tier approach based on city regions and districts fared better.
Both commissions expected these new structures would reinforce councils’ ability to make a considerable economic and social contribution to society.
Formed in the mid 1970’s the new councils faced these challenges despite increasing economic upheaval, especially in areas dominated by manufacturing industries. New statutory services were entrusted to councils (social work; strategic planning and, in Scotland, children’s panels) and there was a blossoming of invention, creation and delivery of new ways of tackling deep-seated social problems and grasping new economic opportunities.
Councils secured hundreds of £millions in EU grants to facilitate the implementation of new socio-economic policies. Water and sewerage infrastructure was transformed. Suburban rail systems developed and bus routes enhanced. Motorways were built and major new economic and business development zones created. Schools were revamped and teacher shortages eliminated yet in Scotland, just as regional councils felt that they were becoming increasingly effective, it all came to a shuddering halt. A perfunctory six-month review in Scotland and the regional and district councils were gone and replaced in 1996 by 32 unitary councils. A number of key services, what’s more, were removed from the direct control of individual councils (police; fire; water; sewerage: children’s panels; career guidance; tourism; passenger transport).
The reason? Councils were now judged by central government to be too small to manage these services! These were nationalised directly or replaced by joint boards that, with the passage of time, have also been nationalised.
The journey in England was not dissimilar with the abolition of the Greater London Council and the met counties and the emergence of a complex patchwork of unitary authorities, met boroughs, district councils, county councils and London boroughs.
Were these changes evidence of a fundamental shift in central government’s view of the role of local government? Any doubts were rapidly dispelled in 2010 when austerity hit councils with eye-watering cuts in central government funding – with no commensurate reduction in roles, functions or responsibilities.
Across the UK, an imposed 8-year council tax freeze and continuing reduction in central government financial support since 2010 has led to the loss of thousands of council employees with a consequential significant reduction in local government’s ability to tackle an increasing volume of social, health, economic and justice issues accumulating in communities
Those of us who care about local government realise that, based as they are in their communities and often fiercely democratically accountable, councils are best placed to solve national problems – one community at a time. But reduced funding for schools means school standards drop; for youth services and community activities means youth crime increases; for social care means hospital bed blocking and homelessness spiral.
Central government’s fixation with establishing single issue organisations to solve single issues cannot work because they fail to understand that most issues are highly complex.
However, managing complexity is what Councils do on a daily basis mobilising their policy, human and financial resources to tackle local problems, understanding that ostensibly simple problems require a multidisciplinary approach to have any chance of resolution.
At some level this deeper understanding of local government’s inherent abilities is being recognised with City Deals and encouragement to councils in Manchester, Liverpool and in other metropolitan areas in England to create council-led power houses.
Mind the gap
And that’s the problem. There is a fundamental weakness in our civic society, not present in other advanced democracies.
Central government has little respect for local government whereas we showed how, in the decades following WW2, councils were given a key role in rebuilding our towns and cities with new powers, funds and responsibilities to discharge that role.
Sadly, the insidiousness of the centripetal forces that bedevil our country hand local delivery to government departments and quangos, eclipsing local government’s historic role.
We simply cannot go on like this if we are to have any chance of successfully tackling the enormous challenges that current and future generations will face.
Some Future Challenges
- Accommodating a UK population of 70m by 2029 – 73m by 2041
- Coping with the local impact of climate change
- The local implementation of zero carbon targets
- Managing the demands of an ageing population
- Building tens of thousands of homes for rent
- Improving Life Expectancy
- Facilitating new forms of economic development
- Working with our rich cultural base
As we argued in our second article, a start to redressing this imbalance would be for the UK Government and the devolved governments to sign the European Charter of Local Self Government – then we could at last begin to have serious conversations, based on a joint understanding of and respect for each other’s roles, on how we are to successfully tackle the substantial and increasingly complex issues of the future.
*The Mercat Group consists of Bill Howat, Phil Jones, David Hume, Gavin Whitefield and Keith Yates as well as George Thorley.
Featured image, of Buchanan St station, Glasgow, and photo of SSE Hydro, Fay Young; image of Dundee waterfront/V & A, by Tommy Perman; of Loch Katrine dam by Stephen Sweeney, CC By-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; James Craig’s plan for the New Town provided to Wikimedia Commons by Geographicus Rare Antique Maps,
See also: Sceptical Scot editors 2019: Turbo charged austerity devolved from centre to local councils