Edinburgh Council needs leadership prepared to stand up to central government – Iain Whyte
Councils are widely known as local “authorities” suggesting power and influence.
A powerful capital-city council like Edinburgh should be able to challenge national policy and decide its own priorities on behalf of local people.
That’s why it was interesting last week to see the council’s SNP leader make a call at his party’s conference for “full and transparent funding” and “local flexibility” for councils. In a party as demonstrably centralised as the SNP, he must have had permission for this brave move. You might even think there was a council election coming.
The trouble is the evidence to suggest this call might deliver just isn’t there. More than 20 years of devolution have seen councils’ powers and influence reduced. This centralisation has accelerated considerably under SNP-run Scottish governments.
Our police and fire services have been removed from local government and centralised. Scottish government influence over social care has increased through “integration” with the NHS.
Funding is reliant on delivering Scottish government policies and priorities, particularly in education and transport, and often falls short of what’s needed. Overall policy is governed by national priorities through “partnership boards”.
Regrettably, much more centralisation is to come with the SNP government’s proposals for a “National Care Service”. Cosla, not my favourite organisation given its supine approach to Scottish government centralisation in the past, has at least come out fighting this time, its president stating the obvious that “the ‘onion peel’ of local government services by this government shows no sign of letting up”.
There’s also a huge flaw in the council leader’s stated approach. For him, financial flexibility simply means new or higher taxes. His “vision” is one of increased funding but spent in exactly the same Scottish government-determined way and paid for by some unidentified “rich people”.
There is never any discussion about using what we have more efficiently or looking for local solutions to issues like the education attainment gap where employing the national approach has seen us falling far behind Scotland’s other cities. The reality of “flexibility” would be more taxes on ordinary Edinburgh people like their broken promise not to increase Council Tax by more than three per cent until 2022.
There was also a more dangerous call by SNP councillors at their conference. They want the public to give them even more power in councils and over Cosla at next year’s elections – they can’t have liked the recent criticism. Aside from the rather creepy one-party state image this suggests, it certainly wouldn’t help the independence and authority of councils.
I’m old enough to remember the last time councils showed any real independence in the 1990s. That usually meant councils run by a different party to the then Conservative government. However, the political diversity involved also gave authority to Conservative councillors to publicly challenge their own ministers where they saw a local need to be different.
Now, more than ever, Edinburgh Council needs to make its voice heard loudly and clearly, not just on funding but on local decision-making. After 14 years and growing of centralising government from a centralised SNP that can’t be done through an ersatz challenge from within. If you want a council with genuine “local authority” you must change the party in charge next May.
Councillor Iain Whyte is Conservative group leader on Edinburgh Council