England & Wales, Scotland Communities and society

Shared concerns, shared perceptions


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Janet Sillett, LGiU Briefings Editor, reports from our first LGiU Scotland event, held in Edinburgh: how is local government perceived by Holyrood and Westminster and are we witnessing the emergence of real devolution to sub national government?

Listening to Professor Richard Kerley, (Chair, Centre for Scottish Public Policy) at the first LGiU Scotland event, reminded me that England and Scotland may have different local government systems, but we have much in common. Especially how central government sees local government. There is a shared notion in sub national government of centralisation – in Cardiff, Holyrood, Stormont, Westminster.

Is this changing? Local government devolution is certainly high on the political agenda in England now. And following the Scottish independence referendum there is an ongoing debate about where power should reside and how devolution needs to go beyond devolving to Holyrood. The Smith Commission called for a major shift in power and a revival of local decision-making. The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy highlights the central local debate and the democratic deficit many believe still exists.

The EU referendum raises issues too of subsidiarity, which shouldn’t just be about the EU and National dimension.

So what would be an ‘ideal’ relationship between the centre and the local? Professor Kerley, who was a member of COSLA’s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, reminded us of its principles for stronger democracy, including where we should talk about spheres of government rather than tiers, where the relationship is of interdependency, not dependency, and the partners have a shared purpose – the well being of local communities. Where transparency is paramount. Where we start from a working assumption of ‘local first’ ; that is , we should put subsidiarity as a primary organisational principle.

The UK is recognised as a centralised political system, with such centralisation often played out – perhaps in different ways – in each of the four home countries. There is certainly democratic power being transferred from Westminster to Holyrood (even if the degree of devolution is disputed). But there has not yet been an equivalent transfer of power to local government.

This debate is, of course, not a new one. Local government across the UK (indeed across the EU) has argued for the right to determination – as set out in the European Charter for Local Self Government: to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in the interests of the local population. Local and regional government has called for greater fiscal autonomy and for the legal status of local government to be clarified.

In England, central government, led by the Treasury, has been promoting a ‘localist’ agenda, with the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, the new combined authorities and the prospect of devolving functions (as reflected in the Greater Manchester deal especially). Councils are to become self-financing, with the withdrawal of central government grant and the abolition of the uniform business rate. This has all been widely welcomed by local government – but it can still be argued that the centre has not given up its notion of hierarchy. The combined authorities that accept a directly elected mayor will, for example, have the greatest degree of devolution. Councils have to make their case for devolved responsibilities to the government who have the final say. And council tax is still being ‘capped’. The relationship is still based on how central government sees local government as being able to deliver on their behalf, ‘get things done’, rather than it recognising that local government has its own, equally valid, democratic mandate.

More cynical commentators have suggested that the proposal for 100 per cent retention of business rates is also about passing the pain and accountability of hugely reduced funding to local politicians. This does raise an important question though – is fiscal devolution compatible with equity – where some areas will have more capacity, for instance, to raise income than others? No doubt this will become a debate in Scotland if Holyrood decides to follow Westminster’s example.

There are bound to be tensions arising where powers and responsibilities are devolved to local authorities and communities, but localists will argue that doesn’t diminish the case for communities being able to make local decisions for themselves. Of course, none of this is plain sailing. There was an interesting discussion at our Edinburgh seminar about what do we really mean by ‘communities’ in this context and what does ‘empowering communities’ actually mean? How are communities made up and what is the ‘bottom layer’ community councils or community organisations? Some attendees felt that there was a feeling of disconnect between communities and regional councils, but local authorities can feel disempowered too. Extensive community consultation can be negated by one person from central government making the final planning decision. There were different views about how well Community Planning Partnerships were working. But debate on all this is surely healthy and needs encouragement within communities.

There is in Scotland now increasing discussion about how greater devolution to local government could take place – what functions, for example, could be devolved, and how it could mean adapting existing governance structures or adopting new ones. But it’s important to remember the bigger picture – why devolving to councils and communities is crucial. The referendum campaign enlivened politics at the local as well as the national level. Building on that within communities will strengthen democracy and participation in the political process. Although decentralising decision making can throw up dilemmas around, for example, ‘postcode lotteries’, it should also make services more accountable to residents and service users and make them more sensitive to the very varied circumstances across Scotland. Tackling huge social problems, such as rising health inequalities, won’t be done through diktat from Holyrood.

The main principle underpinning devolution should surely be that when Holyrood gains new responsibilities and greater fiscal power from Westminster, that power should be devolved further when it can be to the most appropriate sphere of government.