Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Local Governance Review – the state of play


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A review of local governance in Scotland has been underway for 12 months and aims to consider how powers, responsibilities and resources are shared across national and local spheres of government including with communities. It includes all public services. Communities and public services are currently being invited to set out their proposals. Professor James Mitchell has been working with COSLA to help develop the key themes emerging from across local government and beyond. As part of that work, COSLA is inviting councils and partners to share emerging thinking in a series of workshops around Scotland. Further details on how to take part are at the end of this briefing.

Briefing in full

Since before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, most of the debate on the governance of Scotland has focused on the national level. Discussion on whether Scotland should have a Parliament, what powers should be devolved and whether Scotland should be independent has tended to crowd out discussion on the governance of Scotland from below. There had been interest in the relationship between the Parliament and local government at the outset of devolution, so a Commission under Sir Neil McIntosh, former chief executive of Strathclyde Region and one of Scotland’s most respected public servants, was asked to:

  • consider how to build the most effective relations between local government and the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive; and,
  • consider how councils can best make themselves responsive and democratically accountable to the communities they serve.

It reported a month after the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, setting out some general principles governing central-local relations. Such relations should be based on mutual respect and parity of esteem, given their common democratic mandate. It emphasised the principle of subsidiarity and that the onus should be on the Scottish Parliament to demonstrate the benefits that would accrue from any centralisation. It was also stressed that the principle of subsidiarity went beyond local government, but reached into local communities. Successive Scottish Governments have treated the McIntosh recommendations as a menu from which they could pick and choose rather than an integrated and comprehensive programme of reform.

More recently, there has been a growing focus on opportunities to strengthen local democracy in Scotland. The Christie Commission called for a shift towards greater community engagement, and the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy found that Scottish local government was out of step internationally, without legal protections. The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government had promised a “comprehensive review of local governance ahead of a Local Democracy Bill later in this Parliament”. This review was launched jointly by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and Scottish Government in December 2017.

The review has been organised into two overlapping strands: an inclusive ‘conversation’ with local communities, reflecting the commitment to community empowerment, and a dialogue with public sector leaders on how Scotland is governed seeking views on how to improve Scottish governance. This first phase involved an ‘engagement mix’ with locally organised events and online engagement, as well as animated film and is focused on community decision making.

The second phase focuses on public service governance. In June, a letter was sent to all public sector leaders, setting out the scope and timing of the review. It anticipated that “all public services will wish to offer proposals… based on an acceptance of increased variation in decision-making arrangements across the country: what is right for one place will not necessarily be right for another.” Scottish Government and COSLA emphasise the continuing importance of the Christie principles: community empowerment and personalised services; collaboration and integration; a significant shift to prevention; and greater efficiency.

A key test of this review will be the extent to which public sector leaders engage with this process. The emphasis placed on this being a review of local governance and not simply local government means that a vast range of public bodies should engage with the process. Given that a large part of public sector leadership is directly responsible to Scottish Government, we should anticipate a rich array of ideas to emerge.

In summer 2018, a survey of Scotland’s 32 local authorities was conducted which highlights the level of the engagement between local government and the community. 29 authorities (90%) responded over the Summer months. The responses were wide-ranging with considerable focus on the continuing improvement processes within each authority, as well as the opportunities that this review offered. They highlighted the diversity of local government but six key themes were discernible across the responses:

  • Asymmetric approaches to governance: allowing for models of local governance to develop in light of local circumstances – one size does not fit all;
  • Collaboration and integration across public services and councils: facilitating growing partnerships in depth as well as breadth where appropriate across clusters of councils regionally and community planning partners, third sector organisations and innovative community models;
  • Exploring regional approaches allowing for economies of scale with flexible deployment at local level;
  • Subsidiarity, empowerment and participation: extending current developments in participatory budgeting, local planning and deliberative democracy and role of community councils with emphasis on local flexibility;
  • Local democratic accountability: extending current local democratic accountability into greater range of public services including health, justice and the economy;
  • Fiscal empowerment: greater financial autonomy over resources available to provide services including discretionary local taxes, review of the application of financial measures in relation to policy initiatives or specific input measures, and opportunities for budget sharing across public service providers.

Reforms to Scottish local government over the last century have been informed by centralisation, consolidation into larger units, efforts to impose symmetry, and an erratic attitude towards creating coherence across public services. The themes emerging from local government challenge these trends and point to a different conception of local government for the 21st century, conforming more with what is found in other parts of Europe. The central message is the need for empowerment.  Three inter-related forms of empowerment would be the measurement against which reform will be judged: community empowerment; fiscal empowerment and functional empowerment.

Reviews can be a way of changing policy and practice, or they can be seen as a cover for inaction while appearing to take an issue seriously. There is some cynicism in local government that this local governance review is the latest in a long list of reviews that lead to little change. The challenge for Scottish Government is to disprove this view, and to ensure that other parts of the public sector are fully engaged and committed. The challenge for local government is to flesh out the case for reform for each of the six themes identified.

To help shape this agenda, workshops are being held across Scotland in November and December to listen to emerging views and ideas and to provide evidence for reform.  Sessions have been scheduled to take place in Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire, Inverness an open to elected members, officers and other partners.  More information about how to get involved can be found via the COSLA website.