Reform in the air in Scotland?

June 4, 2012

Scotland has over the past decade confronted the challenge of creating a devolved administration in Edinburgh. Recent political announcements suggest that this devolved system may well move towards at least a totally devolved system with full tax raising or maybe even complete independence from the United Kingdom. Whichever option is exercised by the people of Scotland however, it seems that significant reform of the current local government system will be a critical element of future constitutional reforms. Arguably, this is not before time given the on-going reductions in voting patterns for the 32 unitary authorities (only 38% turnout in the 2012 elections) and the more than 1200 community councils which operate alongside some 14 health Boards and 8 Police Boards not to mention various local development boards, enterprise groups and other quangos which largely ignore any connection with the system of local democracy.

So, in a surprise move, one of the leading think tanks in Scotland, Reform Scotland, has called(Renewing Local Government, May 2012) for a reduction in the number of unitary authorities from 32 to 19 and a renewal of the community council structures, which the Think Tank notes, has considerable but unrealised potential to underpin local socio-economic development throughout the Country. The surprise arises in that Reform Scotland has been to the forefront of calling for a dynamic local government system, one which would be comparable to the Nordic models.

It seems from this set of recommendations that they have come to a conclusion that if the national political environment is moving towards a model of greater centralisation, which it is, it would be better to consolidate, sensibly, in a reduced number of unitary authorities along with the amalgamation of the health boards back into these unitary authorities. Such a move could be underpinned by strengthening the role of the community council structures which they note can be very successful in dealing with the immediate challenges of local service provision as well as providing the opportunity for community participation in local planning for example.

The Report also calls for an enhanced system of area based service delivery through the renewed unitary authority structures. This they argue could lead to enhanced integration within the more geographically dispersed authorities that are the hallmark of extensive parts of Scotland.

All of which points to the need to reform the planning system as well as reforming the tax raising responsibilities of the local authorities. Currently they are over-dependent upon the Scottish Executive, albeit from an Irish perspective, at least the authorities in Scotland can plan on a multi-year basis thanks to the arrangements in place between the Executive and COSLA, the representative body for the Scottish Local Authorities.

Importantly the report acknowledges the diversity of Scotland suggesting that there is a need to recognise that Glasgow and Edinburgh are different from the rural vastness of the central highlands not to mention the outer islands. Nonetheless, the Think Tank does argue for a system which recognises the central role which local government and its democratic basis does play in creating vibrant and sustainable communities.

Are there lessons for its Celtic cousin?
Well reading the report certainly does highlight that the Scottish system, even as it stands, provides for greater participative inputs from very local level of community councils through the community planning process. In addition, the fact that local government is responsible for education remains that were health to be returned to the system, it would be well placed to provide an integrated service offering which is some way off in Ireland given recent decisions to move towards a shared services model which is centralised, something which has not proven to be that successful in other countries where it has been tried.

So there are several ideas in the Reform Scotland Report which usefully could be adopted in the Irish case. Given the on-going delays to issuing the policy statement on local government, taking a couple of hours to read the Reform Scotland Report might be an exercise well spent. If nothing else it demonstrates that even our near neighbours are grappling with the need to re-configure their systems of public management, even if they are established on sounder principles of post modern public management than those currently prevailing in Ireland.