Radical proposals to create 100 Scottish councils
The Herald Scotland, by Gerry Braiden
Plans for the most radical overhaul of Scottish local government in decades, which could triple the number of councils and equip them with major tax-raising powers, have been unveiled.
Sweeping proposals to change the entire political landscape by 2020, regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, are laid out in a major new report.
Its recommendations include handing local government full local control of the whole range of property taxes including council tax, business rates, land and property transaction tax, and the freedom to band and set taxes in ways suitable to local circumstances.
In its report, the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy claims a "fundamental review of the structure, boundaries, functions and democratic arrangements for local governance in Scotland" is required to "turn around 50 years of centralisation".
Proposing a Nordic-like model, the report made comparisons to Norway, which has 434 municipalities, Denmark, which has 98, and Finland, with 342.
It claims Scotland would be "fairer, wealthier and healthier if local communities had control over the issues that matter to them".
After a nine-month review, the commission – whose members include academics, senior councillors from across the political spectrum, trade union chiefs and representatives of civic Scotland – claims there is a link between "the absence of true local democracy and the prevalence of inequalities".
Crucially, it states councils should have the freedom to raise more than 50 per cent of their income locally and that lack of meaningful fiscal powers has strangled local democracy in recent decade, turning off much of the electorate from participating in it.
Changes in Scotland’s local landscape in recent decades are also prominent in the report. Some 203 diverse local councils with taxation powers were reduced to 32 with uniform functions and powers by 1996.
The report comes amid ongoing speculation about reform of local government including the possibility of a reduction in the number of councils and further spending cuts.
One source close to the commission said: "It’s a choice between a Scandinavian opportunity or a Tesco-style local democracy where the only thing which matters is price. This isn’t about nutty councils wanting to collect stamp duty. It’s about systems which are in place in Scandinavia where the same equalities gaps don’t exist. But it’s difficult to throw off the view that efficiency should override democracy."
Established last November by Cosla, the umbrella body for Scotland’s 32 councils, the commission received 200 written submissions to its call for evidence, conducted 1000 telephone surveys, and held public events.
Although it insists on not being prescriptive on any detailed future local government, it is understood the figure of about 100 authorities has been discussed.
David O’Neill, chairman of the commission and Cosla president, said: "Over the decades Scotland has become perhaps one of the most centralised countries in Europe.
"Today, the argument is no longer whether Scotland is out of step with other modern democracies. Instead, it is between those who think this is acceptable, and those who believe it must change. The question is about what democracy should be like in the years to come. Regardless of the outcome, are we prepared to let the referendum perpetuate old ways of thinking?
"This is not just about making democracy stronger. It is also about improving lives. While outcomes have got better for many in Scotland, over the last 50 years the gap between the best and worst off has widened. If we are apathetic we will get the democracy we allow; the current period of constitutional debate and creativity creates a real opportunity to get the democracy we want."