Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

A new deal to empower local communities – coming soon?

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Image by Neal Nisbet from Pixabay

Much is said, and many promises are made during election campaigns.

SNP’s recent leadership election is no different.  And in the torrent of news releases from victorious candidate (Humza Yousef produced three times as many words in his news releases than his rivals), there is one that local government might welcome.  An email appeared for release on 10 March headed ‘HUMZA PLANS TO EMPOWER LOCAL COMMUNITIES AS SNP LEADER’.  It received scant attention amidst arguments about membership numbers, gender recognition, continuity and resignations of SNP staff.

It announced he would unveil ‘plans for a New Deal for local authorities.  ‘New deal’ has become a standard trope amongst politicians ever since Franklin Roosevelt’s peroration to his acceptance speech winning the Democratic nomination for the presidency in July 1932.  He noted the ‘need to reset the relationship with councils’.

We shall see whether it lives up to the hype of a ‘new deal’.

Holyrood is executive-dominated.  The promise and potential for Parliamentary committees to initiate and make policy has not been realised though there is no institutional reason why a confident committee with strong members putting their communities before party loyalty could not assert itself.  Given that all parties agree that the current set up has failings, though there are differences in identifying these and how they should be tackled, there ought to be scope to address these within Holyrood’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee.  The commitments made in Humza Yousaf’s news release offer a starting point and ought to find favour across parties on the committee.

Six commitments were made and each can to be explored for meaning.

1. Negotiate a Bute House type agreement with local government .

This raises the obvious question as to what ‘type’ means.  The Bute House Agreement is an odd analogy as it is between Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group.  A more pertinent comparison would suggest the 2007 concordat between Scottish Government and COSLA but this cannot be said given SNP’s desire to pretend that Alex Salmond never existed.  The ‘type’ of agreement is more likely to resemble the Concordat, between Scottish central government and local authorities rather than an agreement between the Scottish Government and a parliamentary group.  The vagueness and odd analogy leave open questions as to the content of the agreement, how it is to be agreed, and scope for amendment.

  1. Maximise local autonomy over spending power by reducing ring fenced budgets through a new fiscal framework.

This also makes the first commitment seem more like the 2007 concordat than anything else.  In 2007, a deal done was to allow local authorities more fiscal freedom within limited budgets.  There is no reference in the news release as to whether there will be a council tax freeze and ‘reducing’ leaves open the obvious question as to what exactly will be released from ring-fencing and which remain.

The notion of a fiscal framework is like the ‘Bute House type agreement’.  The content of the fiscal framework is what counts, not the label.  We have to hope it does not resemble the fiscal framework between Scottish Government and UK Treasury which saw Scotland lose part of the generous financial award under the Barnett formula in place of more tax competences.  While this has generated lots of excitable commentary about the proportion of tax raised in Scotland it ignored the reality that Scotland was worse off and that the increased reliance on the Scottish tax base meant that growing the Scottish economy is now vital in determining how much money there is to spend on services.

A fiscal framework that involves the devolution of penury is not worth having.  But one that truly empowers local government is needed.  A framework that gives local authorities powers to raise more of their own revenue will come with a cut in grant.  A key consideration is the relationship between own resources and grant.  There will need to be a meaningful ‘no detriment’ clause.  The devil, as ever, is in the detail.  There will always be a need for central grant.  The message to local authorities on this is simply be careful what you wish for

Ring-fencing is a form of centralisation, and any form of ring-fencing needs to be justified.  As Layfield noted in 1976,

“What most clearly distinguishes block grants from specific or supplementary grants is that local authorities have discretion as to the purposes to which the grant is applied. If the desire is to give local government a large degree of discretion in expenditure decisions then block grant is a much more suitable way of providing government assistance than specific grants related to particular purposes. It is more flexible and allows a wider range of choice, and so is likely to lead to more effective use of resources. (ch12, para.8)”

  1. Take forward the local Governance review to consider ways of empowering local communities including consideration of a local democracy bill.

Empowerment has become one of the most devalued terms in Scottish political parlance.  Community empowerment requires to be resourced properly, otherwise, it amounts to the devolution of penury not power.  The Local Governance Review was understandably suspended during the pandemic.  The pandemic has taught many lessons that need to be taken on board.  Empowering local communities can only be done meaningfully along with fiscal empowerment and a revision of functions performed locally by different public bodies.  Beware of politicians selling community empowerment without the essential corollary of fiscal empowerment.

  1. Consider new ways of working across public sector boundaries with reform such as the single island authorities.

This takes us back to the early development of local government more than a century ago.  Silo based policy making is ineffective but the question is not whether we should find ways of creating more coherent government but HOW.  How this is done needs to be a key part of any local governance review.  That is why functional empowerment remains important and questions of democratic accountability: which functions should elected local authorities be responsible for?  We would do well to look around Europe to realise that there are many options.  We learned much during COVID that should not be forgotten.

The reference to single island authorities picks on debates that have long been taking place and suggest some movement that is to be welcomed.

  1. Give further consideration to improve financial support to local Councillors to improve diversity.

More diversity amongst those making decisions affecting our communities is essential.  That can best be done through more diversity amongst local councillors.  If we want to attract more people to local govt then we should address the financial support to local councillors and Angela Leitch, chair of Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Cttee, is looking at this question.  But attracting people to serve locally also requires us to make public service meaningful by empowering councils.

  1. Accelerate the work of the City Centre Recovery Taskforce.

This is fine but very limited.  Our cities need real powers – sticking plasters are not enough.  Cities are engines of the economy.  We need to empower our cities well beyond recovery.  The absence of functions and resources available to our cities are holding back key drivers of change.

Comment

Humza Yousaf’s news release during the SNP leadership campaign is a start.  In his victory speech he promised that there would be ‘no empty promises, no easy soundbites when the issues in front of us are difficult and complex’.  Leadership campaigns inevitably give rise to promises and soundbites but his task now is to translate and elaborate on those made in that 10 March News release.  This is where Holyrood LG committee has a role, if it is willing to take it on.

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