Experts warn MSPs of systematic failings in Scottish local democracy 

Campaigners and councillors call for change to centralised council management 

COUNCIL STRUCTURES need an overhaul rather than “scratching the surface” through “tinkering” round the edges in a boundary review, experts told MSPs today [Wednesday 26 October] in parliament. 

Senior council figures and Katie Gallogly-Swan, Electoral Reform Society campaigns organiser, called for substantial change to local democracy to empower citizens within what is currently a centralised and “one size fits all” approach. 

What was intended as a narrower session on the Local Government Boundary Commission was taken over by calls for far more substantial change to the overall approach to council government. 

Gallogly-Swan warned of “decreasing representation in rural areas” and an “outdated” support for the principle for electoral parity, where there is an aim for all areas across Scotland to have a similar ratio of population to council representation. 

O'Neill added that Highland council was larger than the entire nation of Belgium with 32 “artificial boundaries” of councils cutting across the most important communities

Gallogly Swan said a more democratic approach would be “recognising communities as units of decision making” in themselves, meaning towns, villages and islands should be recognised as deserving autonomous democratic representation.

Councillor David O'Neill, President of Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), said Scotland was “out of step” with European equivalents and that Cosla had a “much bigger vision to create a stronger local democracy”. 

O'Neill added that Highland council was larger than the entire nation of Belgium with 32 “artificial boundaries” of councils cutting across the most important communities that the public identify with. 

Charles Reppke, head of governance and law at Argyll and Bute Council, called for “more flexibility to recognise these unique geographical communities” such as islands, in setting council ward numbers.

The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy in Scotland, published in 2014, called for wide-ranging reforms of council governments.

Scotland has one of the most centralised systems of government in Europe, with only 32 council wards across the entire nation of 5.3m people. Other countries have hundreds, and in some case thousands, of local councils. 

Over four years ago The Reid Foundation published ‘The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland’ which revealed the huge disparities between representation in Scotland with elsewhere in Europe.

While 1 in 81 Norwegians stand to be local candidates, the figure in Scotland is 1 in 2,071.

A council election will take place in May 2017, the first opportunity to elect new council administrations for five years. 

The SNP, who won the Scottish Parliament election in 2016, promised a series of reforms of local government. 

Those proposals include: having a national election day for all community councils, a new bill to “decentralise” council functions, devolution of crown estate revenue, a reform of community planning, an Islands Bill to devolve further powers, and a council budget target of 1 per cent for “community choice funding”. 

However, the expert witnesses expressed cynicism to CommonSpace that any of these proposals will go far enough to shift the centralised and disconnected relationship between communities and council government. 

The recommendations of the Commission on Local Tax Reform, a significant financial issue for council governments, to replace the council tax were rejected earlier this year by the Scottish Government in favour of altering the higher council tax bands.

Picture courtesy of Scottish Parliament TV

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