Spring 2023 could mark the start of a new journey for the Scottish people and its democratically elected organisations – the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local authorities.
With Humza Yousaf now elected as leader of the SNP and also appointed as Scotland’s sixth First Minister (FM) could we anticipate the possibility of a new form of devolved government, one that understands the value of seeing devolution as a process where power, resources and responsibilities are further delegated from the Scottish Parliament and Scottish ministers to Scotland’s local authorities and thereafter to local partnerships and community based organisations?
With a record £60 billion to spend over the next twelve months and a hefty range of issues to face, the importance of generating imaginative and innovative pathways and solutions represents the devolution challenge for 2023 and beyond.
The challenge for our new FM will be to grasp this opportunity to break the practise established over the past 24 years of the Scottish Parliament retaining virtually all the powers devolved from Westminster as well as hoovering up functions from Scotland’s local authorities.
Our new FM should also reflect on why the Scottish government has extended its role of policy and law making and resource allocation to taking responsibility for the direct delivery of a vast range of local services?
The future must not mean more of the same although that is exactly the government’s current intention by proposing to take away Council control of social care services.
A reasonable question is “What’s Next?” in this ministerial drive to strip out locally accountable Council services. This consistent tendency since the inception of the Scottish Parliament looks as if the Scottish government’s principal ambition is to become Scotland’s largest local authority.
Scotland’s civic history reveals that over a 21 year period there were nine large, powerful and innovative councils called regional councils. Despite these councils being able to operate at the strategic level and deliver local services the largest regional council, Strathclyde, was consistently lambasted as “Being too Big.”
If Strathclyde, serving a population of 2.4 million was too big, why does the Scottish government aspire to be an even bigger council serving 5.4 million?
There may be three answers to that question.
- Being a legislator means that you are given considerable power by the electorate to pass laws, set objectives, levy taxes and allocate resources. The evidence from 24 years of Scottish devolution seems to indicate that this powerful combination once acquired, is very reluctantly given away. This is counter to the devolution argument that Parliament’s prime role is to operate at the strategic level, setting and funding national objectives and outcomes and holding public sector organisations to account for service delivery.
- To ensure spending £60bn a year is in line with Scottish government policies and priorities, ministers have increasingly taken control through either doing everything directly or via Scotland’s catafalque of 113 quangos. Maybe this approach is less difficult than a more collaborative negotiation with local authorities to determine the most effective delivery mechanisms, despite the fact that local authorities are better placed to deliver, innovate and modify national policies to suit their local populations, businesses and environments. After all they represent the only other democratically accountable level of government through their 1200+ Councillors.
- All of which begs the question, “Who Really Wants Devolution to Work?” The answer surely is “All of Us.” You would think after 24 years with devolved powers over the bulk of the public realm and with expenditure involving hundreds of £billions that Scotland would be an international beacon, awash with innovation and progress. Scotland should be the go to place to see imaginative policies and inspired delivery across the health service, education, social care, climate change and the economy. With a few exceptions this is not the case with a government that is consistently failing to meet its own performance targets. Recall the controversy between candidates on national performance in the recent FM hustings. Check out the Government’s 81 national performance indicators, only 61 of which currently have confirmed measures with those mostly flat lining or worsening.
A government that operates on the basis of centralisation and control; micro- management and a misplaced lack of faith or worse still, a lack of trust in local government to deliver locally based solutions to both national and local issues will not succeed. It must exploit the full toolbox offered by devolution.
Scotland’s largest local authority: the SG?
Surely devolution should mean more than the government’s apparent ambition to be Scotland’s largest local authority?
We clearly need a Fresh Start. One where Humza Yousaf can now lead on yoking the Scottish Parliament and Councils together in partnerships designed to really make devolution work.
Written by George Thorley on behalf of the Mercat Group of former Scottish Council CEOs (Bill Howat, Phil Jones, George Thorley, Gavin Whitefield, Keith Yates)