Listening to Professor Richard Kerley, (Chair, Centre for Scottish Public Policy) at the first ever LGiU Scotland event a couple of weeks ago, reminded me that England and Scotland may have different local government systems, but we have much in common, writes Janet Sillett. 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 the assumption of local first. All of this applies equally to Scotland and England.
The UK is recognised as an over centralised country. 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. There has been some progress, such as the concordat between Holyrood and COSLA.
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.
There are bound to be tensions arising where powers and responsibilities are devolved to local authorities and communities, such as the degree and type of protection still needed for poorer areas. 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’ – in Scotland, for example, community councils or community organisations? Some attendees felt that there was a feeling of disconnect between communities and councils, but councils can feel disempowered too. Extensive community consultation can be negated by one person from Holyrood making the final planning decision. There are similar perceptions in England.
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 a country. Tackling huge social problems, such as rising health inequalities, won’t be done through diktat from Holyrood and nor will sustainable local growth and integrated public services work effectively in England without local government taking the lead.
Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s briefing manager.