Local government in Scotland is important. It employs 45% of the Scottish public sector workforce, (245,700 of the total 545,600), spends a similar proportion of the Scottish budget, is the main delivery body for key devolved policy areas (including education, social work, housing, leisure, planning, roads, and social inclusion/ justice), and is an often-influential partner in other areas, such as police, fire, mental health, and public health services.
Consequently, we often talk of an interdependent relationship between central and local government: local authorities enhance the legitimacy of Scottish Government policies by providing important policy advice, tailoring delivery to local areas, and supplying an additional electoral mandate; and, the Scottish Government largely determines the levels of legal, financial and political autonomy that they enjoy.
Sometimes, we also highlight a tense relationship regarding the levels of autonomy afforded to local authorities, measured in terms of the extent to which they are subject to (a) detailed legislation and regulation, and (b) limits to their ability to raise revenue and decide how their budget is spent.
Two images of central-local government relations in Scotland
The first, summed up in the phrase ‘Scottish approach’, discussed in the previous lecture, suggests that the Scottish Government devolves a meaningful level of authority to local authorities, which increasingly make policy in cooperation with their public sector partners and non-governmental stakeholders.
The second suggests that Scottish local authorities are subject to Scottish Government control, through financial and legal instruments.
You can see these images play out below, in a discussion and qualification of the devolution effect on central-local relations.
A key part of the first story is that things are better than they once were, either after 1999 or after 2007. To reinforce this image, we can refer to:
Devolved central-local relations are often compared to the period of UK Conservative government (1979-97), in which central-local tensions arose following many central government reforms, including a broad challenge to the primacy attached to public sector delivery, and specific measures, including: the introduction of the ‘poll tax’ to limit local authority spending, ‘compulsory competitive tendering’ (the delivery of public services), the enforced sale of/ ‘right to buy’ (council housing), public/ private partnerships (e.g. to build schools); and, the reform of local government boundaries and functions (e.g. the 1996 reform which introduced 32 unitary Scottish local authorities).
In that context, there is some evidence of:
- a better central-local relationship in Scotland (than in the UK) before devolution, based on closer personal networks and a sense that some ‘wet’ Scottish Office ministers often tried to reduce the impact of reforms;
- a sense of common purpose, during the campaign for Scottish devolution between the leaders of local authorities and the parties which were to form the first Scottish Government (‘Scottish Executive’)
Both factors may have contributed to a ‘honeymoon period’ in which devolution enhanced or replaced previous relationships, the Scottish Government became more open and consultative, local authorities and COSLA became more involved in policy formulation, and this relationship helped produce reforms – such as the replacement of compulsory competitive tendering with ‘Best Value’, and the development of local government community planning powers – that suited local authorities.
However, many policies associated with the Thatcher government were maintained or extended under Labour (such as the ‘right to buy’ and PPP), the Scottish Government maintained control over most sources of local authority income and, although the Scottish Government used performance management in a less punitive way than the UK government, it still held local authorities to many short term targets (what about the introduction of STV in local elections – is it relevant to this discussion?). Opinions on the central-local relationship were mixed, and the idea of a partnership was often ‘aspirational’.
Some accounts use the latter argument to suggest that most of the big changes only happened when the SNP entered government in May 2007, highlighting:
- The Scottish Government’s Concordat with COSLA in 2007, which suggests that the former will not seek to micromanage local authorities or use regulations, performance management, and funding to produce compliance with short term, specific proxy targets.
- A proposed reduction in 2007 – from 22% to 10% – of ‘ring-fenced’/’hypothecated’ funding (the proportion of local authority budgets which they have to spend in accordance with specific Scottish Government requirements).
- Alex Salmond signalling a ‘culture change in the relationship between central and local government in Scotland. The days of top-down diktats are over’ (p130).
- Former COSLA President Pat Watters talking in 2007 about local government now having greater responsibility and ‘the freedom and flexibility to respond effectively to local priorities’ (p130).
- The development of the ‘Scottish approach’
However, many of the same caveats apply: the Scottish Government still provides about 80% of local government budgets, it still has a major influence on the rate of local authority council tax (to ensure its ‘freeze’ since 2007), and its proposed local income tax would have increased its budgetary control.
Further, have a look at how some people in local government describe the new relationship:
- Current COSLA President David O’Neill in 2014, as chair of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy: ‘Over the decades, we’ve seen a culture in which more and more services and decisions been taken away from local communities and put into the hands of distant bureaucracies’
- The Improvement Service’s Mark McAteer: ‘Scotland continues to operate a largely centralised, top-down and de-localised local government system’. McAteer’s paper identifies an unusually low number of local authorities per head of population and high Scottish Government control over its budget, and suggests that low electoral turnout reflects low levels of local government power.
So, local government is important, and the Scottish Government tells an important story about its crucial role, as part of the ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’, while others tell a story of continued Scottish Government control and limited local government subsidiarity. We can discuss in the lecture which story seems most convincing.
Further reading: to combine our discussions of complexity theory and the limits to local government/ public sector discretion, see The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability