March 27, 2017 : Jenny Bloomfield

We need a new way of doing local government in Scotland

Voters are disengaged from the current system. But how should it be changed?

What place should local authorities have in modern day Scotland? I’ve been thinking about this since reading Carla’s blog about the role they might play in preventing poverty.

Some people see Scotland’s 32 councils as local delivery arms for centrally-dictated services; their budgets and priorities heavily controlled by the Scottish Government, or so the argument goes.

Others regard them as bastions of local democracy, putting people at the heart of how their communities are run. What both groups share is a view that councils aren’t fit for purpose.

It is a little known fact that Scotland boasts (if that’s the right word!) the largest councils in Europe, each serving on average 170,000 people – the European average is 14,000.

Mind you, averages mean little when you consider that Orkney’s population of 20,000 is not only rather smaller than, but has quite different concerns to the 600k urban dwellers served by Glasgow City Council.

According to Nordic Horizons, a campaigning group that wants Scotland’s councils to be more like those of Scandinavian countries – where responsibilities are greater, wards smaller, and councillor salaries are higher – the remoteness of Scottish local government breeds low turnout – 38% at the last council elections.

Something has to give. If we can be sure about anything, it’s that the public aren’t keen on the current set-up.

But then why should they be? Does anyone actually know what local authorities actually do? As Derek Mackay MSP highlighted back in 2015, the problems people come to him with should often be dealt with at a local council level.

How best to solve this mess? First, we need to work out what councils are for. With the Scottish Parliament as strong as it is, and with even more powers coming its way (leaving aside any possible future powers), what role should our councils should play?

Maybe they are the missing local link between the 5 million people living in Scotland and their 129 MSPs. If so, do we need more councillors to represent and act upon these millions of views? Or should we develop community councils so that people really know, understand and use them to feed into council decisions? Perhaps we should do both?

On the other hand, maybe people would prefer for councils to become more like extensions the Scottish Government. If so, we’ll have to decide on how services should be delivered and work out the best way to pay for them.

Another way might be found in the various participatory budgeting schemes that councils have been engaging with across the country. This is where relatively small sums of money are given to local authorities for them to decide on how it should be spent, albeit within a set of tight rules. Maybe that’s the direction we need to encourage our council in, working with local people, even on an informal basis, to have more of a decision on what happens in their area.

But is this enough? Or do we, as a sector, need to demand more of our local authorities? Which model would work best for the people we service? I’d be keen to hear your views.

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Jenny Bloomfield