Local authorities, like the council here in Edinburgh, are responsible for delivering an enormous proportion of the services that matter most to us as residents. How many potholes are in our roads and how often our buses run; whether a housing development receives planning permission and how often our bins are collected; what resources are given to our schools and where we are allocated social housing. These decisions – the ones that really affect our day-to-day lives – are decided by the local authority.
And, yet, local democracy is weak. This week, we will go out to vote in the local authority elections in smaller numbers than we do when there is a Holyrood or Westminster election, or a referendum. We will struggle to remember the names of our new councillors. And we are more likely to vote based on national issues such as independence and Brexit rather than the local ones I have mentioned. Why?
Reform Scotland believes that people have become disconnected from the local politicians they elect. We believe that local councillors and councils are exercising power without having to take sufficient responsibility. That is why, as part of our new Blueprint for Local Power, we are proposing new legislation to formalise the role of local authorities in the Scottish political structure. Just as the Scotland Act stipulates that any area not specifically reserved to Westminster is automatically devolved to Holyrood, similarly, we want to see an Act which stipulates that any area not specifically reserved to Holyrood should be automatically devolved to local authorities.
We want to see power devolved as close to the people as possible because we think that local representatives are better placed to make the right decisions for local communities and people. However, with the passing of power, we also want to see the passing of responsibility. At present, only around £1.40 of every £10 that Scottish local authorities spend is actually raised by local authorities.
In order for local representatives to be truly accountable to voters, and in order for people to feel that there is a clear imperative for them to become democratically involved in local politics, councils like Edinburgh’s must be responsible for raising a far higher proportion of the money they spend. Ideally, around half.
At present, even the two taxes which are supposed to be ‘local’ (business rates and council tax) are not really local at all. The business rate is set by the Scottish Government and when collected it goes to a central pot for redistribution. The council tax, after years of a centrally-imposed freeze, is still tightly controlled by Holyrood with no practical freedom for local authorities to make their own decisions about its level.
This should stop. Local authorities should be able to raise (or lower) these taxes in any way they see fit. Indeed, they should, if they wish, be able to abolish the taxes and replace them with something else. In some council areas, the authority may feel that a sales tax would be beneficial to them in their desire to raise money. Some may prefer an income tax. Or, of course, some may wish to stick with a property tax as the main revenue method.
What they choose is not, at this stage, important. What is important is that they are able to exercise their judgement as locally elected people, and to face the consequences of those judgements at the ballot box. Local democracy is at a crossroads. Politicians of all parties have, for decades, paid lip service to the devolution of responsibility to a local level. It is time now for them to act.
Geoff Mawdsley is the director of Reform Scotland