Local Government in Scotland: Initial thoughts on the case for reform

I’ve recently undertaken some research into the structure of Scottish Local Government. This research should, in the fullness of time, culminate in a paper in which I will make the case for reorganising Scotland’s Local Authorities however as I know readers of this blog will be squirming in anticipation of such a paper I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on these matters as I conduct my research.

The present structure of Scotland’s Councils was introduced by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. 29 Unitary Authorities replaced nine Regional and 49 District Councils on the mainland – the three Unitary Island Authorities remained largely unchanged. The provision of Police and Fire & Rescue services was handed over to Joint Boards based roughly along the old Regional boundaries, and authority over Trunk Roads was passed upwards to the Scottish Office (and now the Scottish Executive).

These authorities range in size and population. Clackmannanshire’s population is less than 10% that of Glasgow City’s: 50,540 to 588,470. While Highland Council covers an area of 25,659km2 Dundee City covers a mere 60km2. While some authority boundaries (such as Fife) pay considerable regard to historic county boundaries others (such as East Dunbartonshire) do not.

Given that the existing local government structure in Scotland was introduced in the dying days of a Conservative Government, and opposed by the majority of Scottish MPs, Councillors and voters – why hasn’t anyone tried to reform it

After all, it’s not like reform of public services and local government haven’t been on the agenda at all. The Liberal Democrats demanded and won Single Transferrable Vote for Council elections as the price of a second coalition with Labour. The Scottish Government have piloted direct-elections to Health Boards. All three major parties in Holyrood support the merging of Scotland’s police into a single force. Meanwhile neighbouring Councils are moving towards sharing service provision as a means of generating efficiencies.  It seems incredible that despite these reforms the question of the structural reform of local government hasn’t been asked.

I intend, therefore, for my research into local government to extend beyond simply councils. I intend to consider Policing and Fire & Rescue Services, which were once provided by local authorities, as well as Health Boards, Local Enterprise Companies, Transport Partnerships, and Valuation Boards all of who play key roles in the government of and provision of public services to Scotland yet are subject to fairly light democratic oversight.

Reform will not come easily though.  With the prevailing political wind in local government moving in the same direction as Holyrood the SNP, who once might have been tempted to consider reform aren’t now going to dismantle a system of local government that has seen them emerge as the largest party for the first time in history and still looking to make huge gains. Meanwhile Councillors aren’t in any great hurry to run transport, police, or fire and rescue services as part of their elected council role when they can top-up their salaries with appointments to outside boards.

While it is my intention to demonstrate that reform is necessary, it is not my intention to demonstrate how these reforms might be achieved. I’ll leave that to the politicians…