The issue of which powers should be controlled and from where is dominating Scottish life at the moment. For the last two years the debate has been rumbling about who is best placed to make key decisions on everything from taxes and education, to health and defence – London or Edinburgh?
But amid this constitutional wrangling, one area has been largely neglected – what powers should local councils have?
A report published this week stated that, in recent decades, control has filtered away from town halls on to the laps of ministers in government offices, sometimes hundreds of miles away. That is a travesty for democracy, and something the Scottish Conservatives would seek to reverse as a matter of urgency. Take locally elected councillors, committed to their areas and the people in them. Or expert officials and advisers who have worked for, in some cases decades, on matters of local and strategic importance.
And the community groups and organisations, made up of dedicated individuals who want to see the best things happening in their streets, parks and town centres.
These are the people who should be in control, not central government.
Of course local authorities don’t always get it right, and people in Edinburgh know that as well as anyone. But over time, there can be no question that the quality, sincerity and integrity of decisions made on issues of local pertinence are best when reached by the communities directly affected, rather than by a remote and disengaged central authority. Unfortunately, we have a Scottish Government intent on grabbing powers to Holyrood from all sides. We all know about the demand to bring everything from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament, ending 300 years of the most successful social and economic union in the world. But there has also been a slow and steady drift towards more and more decisions which affect local communities are being taken by the Scottish Government, not in Council Chambers, and that ignores local needs and priorities.
This can be seen perfectly in the case of wind farms. Granted, giant white turbines may not be much of a problem in built-up areas like the Capital, but across Scotland this is becoming a massive headache. The Scottish Government finds it perfectly acceptable to breeze in and overrule councils when they reject a large wind farm application, all to satisfy unrealistic and unnecessary renewable energy targets.
We revealed last year how a third of wind farm applications which have been appealed by major developers after a council snub have been successfully appealed to the SNP.
So when local people are saying no to massive applications that will damage the local landscape immeasurably, community councils are saying no, planning officials are saying no and locally elected councillors are saying no, the decision often still goes ahead.
That’s why we want to give councils the final decision on such matters, with no prospect of interference from on high.
In the planning system generally this same problem exists, I have been speaking to many community councils who are fighting to preserve our green spaces against the threat of centrally issued housing targets.
Decision-making works best when it is devolved and allows communities the greatest possible say in their own affairs and on the issues which directly affect them.
If this happens, it will mean better outcomes for all communities across the Lothians and beyond.
Cameron Buchanan is a Scottish Conservative Lothians MSP and local government spokesman