The Times has reported the prospect of “all out war between the Sturgeon administration and Scotland’s local authorities.” (Councils to be stripped of powers in local government revolution, 11th November 2016, p 19). It may be a little difficult to think of any field where councils have many powers left to be stripped. Local authorities are a shadow of their former existence: after 1945 they have lost powers relating to social security, health, public utilities, and more recently they have lost most of their functions relating to housing or social work. Education has been boxed in by a national curriculum. Planning and licensing have been strangled by the imposition of a quasi-judicial framework, requiring councillors to behave as if they were judges rather than representatives. Residual powers relating to police and fire have been centralised. So current proposals to take out still more functions, or to shift responsibilities for bin collection to ‘towns’, would leave little more than a shell behind.
Some years ago, I asked a group of councillors for their views. Many were deeply resentful of the Scottish parliament, which in their view claimed a democratic legitimacy which they thought they had in equal measure. The current system of local government is already remarkably centralised by European standards – Highland Council, to take the most obvious example, is responsible for a geographical area the size of a small country. I don’t think there is any way to resolve the conflict within the current framework, but there is at least a way to put reform in a positive light. There’s a powerful case for real decentralisation – locating services at a level where communities can get much greater control of the affairs that matter to them. To do that, there needs to be a system of local government that is based on existing communities – towns, villages, and traditionally recognised areas – as a centre for schools, housing and public amenities. That would call for reform both at central and at local government levels.