Andy Wightman calls on Nicola Sturgeon to hand local powers over to local people

Scottish Green’s spokesman Andy Wightman calls on Nicola Sturgeon to hand local powers over to local people
Andy Wightman, Daily Record

Andy Wightman, the Scottish Greens’ local government spokesman and MSP candidate for Lothian, says radical reform to deliver more power at local level is crucial and overdue

After the general election in May 2015, Scots voters elected a new group of MPs to represent them in the UK Parliament.

When those MPs returned home after their first week’s work, I took a look to see what they were up to.

In Edinburgh, I discovered that the majority were meeting constituents on matters including housing developments and education.

All well and good except that MPs have no responsibility for these matters – the concerns that were raised were all to do with things that were the responsibility of the City of Edinburgh Council. The constituents should have been seeing their councillors.

This is a small but telling example of how local democracy has been steadily eroded over the decades. It is not often realised that Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe.

Other countries such as Germany and Italy have local councils serving populations of around 7000 to 8000 people with significant powers to raise local taxes for the kinds of services people want. In Scotland, the average population of a Scottish council is 166,000.

With local democracy so distant from the citizen, it is perhaps no surprise that turnout at that last election in 2012 dropped to 39 per cent across Scotland. Across Europe, it is well above 60 per cent and as high as 75 per cent in Italy.

If local democracy is strengthened by being more local and more powerful, people tend to take more of an interest in what it does and to take a more active part in local politics. Again, across Europe, around one in every 100 people stands for election to local councils. In Scotland, it is one in every 2000.

One of the core principles of the Scottish Green Party is a revitalised local democracy. We want all decisions that can be made at a local level to be made at a local level.

During the referendum in 2014, the Yes campaign argued that decisions about Scotland are best made by the people who care most about Scotland – the people of Scotland. Well, we think the same for decisions about Kilmarnock, Peebles, Montrose and Dingwall.

And yet, over the past decades, Scotland’s local communities have seen a reduction in their autonomy.

In 1975, all the town councils were abolished and, since then, both UK and Scottish governments have curtailed the powers of local government over their freedom to raise their own revenue.

Scotland’s councils now raise only around 12 per cent of their own finance compared with a European norm of 50 per cent.

Scottish Greens are committed to putting power back in the hands of people and communities. This involves bold action on land reform, housing, local tax and local democracy.

Over the past 10 years, politicians have tried to outbid each other on how much they could cut local
taxes, competition which led to the council tax freeze. But imagine the outcry if, at a general election, David Cameron asked Scots to vote Tory and they would cut the rate of taxes set by Holyrood. In Germany, this kind of bribery is illegal as each layer of government are responsible for their own tax affairs.

Back at the beginning of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, a report commissioned by Donald Dewar on local government claimed that “Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do”.

Seventeen years later, on the last day of the fourth Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon conceded at First Minister’s Questions that the next parliament could look at how power could be further devolved.

Scottish Greens don’t want to wait any longer. We want to be able to go into the local elections in 2017 with proposals that allow local communities to take far greater control over their local affairs. We want local people to be able to plan where new housing and amenities should go, to decide how much tax to raise to pay for libraries, swimming pools and care services, and to take action to tackle urban blight, establish community energy companies or invest in new public transport services.

This is all normal across Europe but local democracy in Scotland is at a critical turning point with plenty of voices arguing for more centralisation to achieve often mythical efficiencies.

As the fourth Scottish Parliament ends, we would urge everyone to work during the next parliament to strengthen local democracy. Local councils are a vital part of how we are governed.

It is time for Holyrood to be bolder and usher in a new age of local democracy to give real power back to the people.

Source: Daily Record