Size Matters

Nordic Horizons is holding an event ‘McKommunes – People-sized local government for Scotland?’ on Tuesday 7th Feb 6-8.30 in Committee Room 1 of the Scottish Parliament.  More information at

The process of centralisation of governance has gone further in Scotland than in other countries. Highland Council, to take the most striking example, covers an area the size of Belgium with a population the size of Belfast. Councillors need to drive hundreds of thousands of miles a year to connect with fellow councillors and citizens in their council area. Despite such herculean efforts, many remote communities feel neglected and disenfranchised. That is “damaging democracy and economic development in Scotland,” writes Rob Gibson MSP in the introduction to ‘Small Works’. This consultation document proposes a major shake-up of the Highland Council, and Gibson has made the task his “personal priority” for this parliamentary session. “We have a situation in my constituency, where councillors can decide planning applications for projects hundreds of miles away and where spending decisions are made by officials with little or no knowledge of the places they are affecting. Ordinary folk in the Far North feel disconnected from their council, and many businesses and voluntary groups feel frustrated by the lack of local involvement in Council matters.”

Highland Council may be the most extreme case but what is amiss there holds true for most rural councils in Scotland. How come? Local Government in Scotland has a long history, from the sheriffdoms, royal burghs and church parishes to the 33 shires created by the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1889, which marked the beginning of modern local government in Scotland. Until 1929, in addition to four cities, 21 large burghs, 176 small burghs and 878 parishes, there were 430 local government entities until 1974 when the Wheatley reforms gave Scotland a two-tier system, with nine Regional Councils, 53 District Councils and three all-purpose Island Councils (Orkney, Shetland, Western Isles). The present structure is the result of reorganisation based on the (Tory) Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1994 when two tiers were replaced by 29 single-tier authorities with three island authorities giving the current total of 32-councils, with 1,222 elected councillors.

This whittling down of local councils has been matched by a steady loss of local authority powers, functions and budgets in the fields of public health, hospitals, water and sewerage, environment, countryside, countryside recreation, tourism, public transport, airports, economic development, police, children’s panels, and housing. There’s been a process of centralisation, quangoisation and privatisation hollowing out local democracy. Where ‘decentralisation’ has occurred it hass often simply meant privatisation or the transfer of responsibilities to non-governmental institutions. ‘Downsizing’ of the State in the Thatcher period basically meant that voluntary organisations became quasi providers of public services (e.g. ‘care in the community’ for people formerly in public institutions).

We’ve heard the rhetoric of ‘new public management’ (partnerships, modernisation, etc) on the one hand, and on the other we witness the reality of greater central control through targets and performance indicators. The ‘rhetoric of decentralisation’ is exemplified by Eric Pickles’ Localism Bill south of the Border – which seeks to roll back the state and bypass, not empower, local authorities, undermining democratic accountability and transparency. Real devolution of power, real ‘Localism’, would make local government legally and financially less dependent on central government.

A few international comparisons show how out of kilter Scottish local government really has become. Norway (with a population like Scotland of around five million) has 19 counties, each with an elected county council, and 431 municipalities responsible for primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen and social services, unemployment, planning, economic development and roads. The average Norwegian municipality has 12,500 people – the average Scottish council serves 162,500.

Finland, (with a dispersed population of five million) has 19 regions, plus the autonomous region of Åland, and 348 local authorities. Sweden has 21 counties (with 20 elected councillors apiece), two regions and 289 municipalities, plus autonomous Gotland. Denmark has 14 counties, 275 local authorities (each with between 9 and 31 elected members). Iceland, with a population of just over 300,000, has eight regions and 79 municipalities (with between 3 and 27 elected councillors).

Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, with twice the population of Scotland, has a total of nearly 24,000 elected representatives against Scotland’s total of 1,416

Devolved governments elsewhere also have more local elected representatives. Baden-Württemberg, in southern Germany, with twice the population of Scotland, has 1,101 communes, each with an elected mayor and an elected council (20,000 councillors in total), plus 35 districts or boroughs (another 2,380 elected members), an elected regional assembly for Greater Stuttgart (since 1994 – with another 93 elected members) and the Baden-Württemberg Land (State) Parliament itself with 138 elected members, plus 84 members of the Bundestag in Berlin and 12 MEPs. That’s a total of nearly 24,000 elected representatives against Scotland’s total of 1,416.

Even centralist France has 22 regions, 96 départements and 36,000 communes with an average population of just 380 – all with elected members – likewise the federal Swiss with 7.6 million people served by 23 cantons and 2,900 communes (average population 2,600). As the political scientist (and occasional contributor to the Scottish Left Review) Michael Keating summed up, the present system of Scottish local government gives Scotland “the largest average population per basic unit of local government of any developed country”.

Local government is largely financed by the Scottish Government, which supplies about 80 per cent of their revenue expenditure. By contrast, Finnish local government raises half its revenue through local taxation – only one fifth of local government expenditure comes from direct central government transfers; a quarter is raised through fees and charges (e.g. water, waste, power, transport). In Iceland, 63 per cent of local government revenue is raised through a local income tax, 17 per cent through service income, 11 per cent through taxes on real estate, eight per cent come through central government equalisation.

Scottish local councils are therefore very dependent on decisions made by the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament — ring-fenced spending and spending caps further limit the elbow room of local authorities. When the SNP minority government took office in 2007, it promised to liberate and empower local communities. But instead, the former BBC journalist John Knox has argued, the councils were “tied into ‘single outcome agreements’ covering all sorts of central government targets, including a Council Tax freeze”.

There is no land taxation – despite efforts by the Greens and despite its earlier advocacy of a local income tax, the (now majority) SNP government has opted to continue the Council Tax freeze instead. Orkney and Shetland, as a result of their own initiatives, extract royalties from north sea oil passing through their Islands, and can decide themselves how to use these ‘oil funds’ for local social and developmental purposes.

Loss of local authority power and the remoteness of ‘local’ government have undoubtedly contributed to the evident lack of interest in Scottish local government elections. Turnout is abysmal, even after the introduction of proportional representation. Looking round Europe, a pattern emerges – councils in Scotland only raise 20 per cent of their budgets and usually have voter turnouts of 30-50 per cent (when not coinciding with Parliament elections); French councils raise half their budgets, and the average turnout is in the mid-fifties. In strongly localist Switzerland 85 per cent of revenue is raised locally and turnout is 90 per cent. Powerful local government also tends to attract a higher calibre of candidates, which in turn boosts turnout. Whenever effectiveness of local government is debated, the focus seems to be solely on cost and efficiency. But there is also a question of civic engagement, building social capital and, through democratic participation, strengthening civic pride.

There is, however, little political support for the resurrection of town councils. Andy Wightman puts that down to “the growing divide between the political classes and the people”. Indeed ‘reformers’ generally urge more centralisation, claiming Scotland is ‘too heavily’ governed, and decentralisation will only mean more politicians, bureaucracy and expenditure. “Let’s halve the number of MPs, MSPs and MEPs,” suggested Edinburgh councillor Martin Hannan in February 2011, “and cut the number of Edinburgh council seats to, say, around 25. We should also quadruple the deposits to stop crank candidates standing, and generally make the whole process simpler so that people can cast their votes in a few minutes every five years. Because frankly, that is all the attention most of our politicians deserve”. Is that a vision for local democracy in Scotland? And is a polity truly democratic if it lacks a local and regional foundation? Would not a return to municipal government be a better way to restore faith in democracy?

But there’s a danger of looking at the past with rose-tinted spectacles. Too often, as Alex Wood has argued in the Scottish Review, “Small town politics, including in the Labour heartlands, meant small-minded politics”. He supports the return of regional governance. In fact, Scotland needs both: local communities with locally elected councils, and regions with responsibility for spatial and infrastructure planning.

People in Nordic communities do grumble, do moan about taxes and do support mergers amongst the smallest municipalities. But they view councillors as respected neighbours not ill-informed strangers, and expect the bulk of day-to-day decisions about their lives to be taken by people they know.

In July 2011, the Association of Scottish Community Councils (ASCC) announced its demise, after a drastic funding cut from the Scottish Government. But the 9,000 or so community councillors now left without a guiding and coordinating body are part of the problem rather than the solution. According to Vincent Waters, the last ASCC president, community councils “are dying off”, characterised by ageing and dwindling membership. They are toothless, bereft of real powers; they cannot legally own an asset. The exceptions are a few cases where the windfall from windfarms has given them real cash, and with it real responsibility, and thus real power. Yet, increasingly, development trusts have been set up to handle community orchards, lochs, pubs, libraries, bridges and wind turbines – and in the process a very practical, capable and focused set of people have been gathered together and let rip. But do they compensate for democratically elected and accountable councils?

North or south, Baltic or Mediterranean, most European states are still micro-sized at their local tier. That means more councillors and (perhaps) more cost. It also means more connection, traction, trust, effective service delivery and involvement than Scotland’s present configuration of disempowering and distant ‘local’ government which is, put simply, not fit for purpose.

A further transfer of powers is in prospect for the Scottish Parliament, including substantial fiscal and borrowing powers. And the next ‘local’ council elections are looming. This is precisely the right time for that Parliament to remember that devolution was never meant to stop at Holyrood – it’s at least encouraging to hear just those sentiments included by Johann Lamont in her victory speech as new Scottish Labour leader. “Power will be decentralised in a participative society,” wrote Constitutional Convention convener Kenyon Wright optimistically back in 1997. Civic Scotland made a big effort to secure the return of the Parliament – maybe it should get into campaign mode once more to secure greater local autonomy. Rob Gibson’s ‘Small Works’ consultation in the Highland Council area could be a starting point.

Nordic case studies – by Lesley Riddoch

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Five summers back I visited the small town of Seyðisfjörður in north-east Iceland (pop 668) and was impressed to see gangs of youngsters mending fences, mowing grass, and painting walls at the local hospital. “Yes, the municipality decided to pay them a small amount to fix the town every summer. The older kids guide the young ones, they don’t get bored, they learn to earn money and we get everything ready for the tourist season.”

It made so much sense.

“Doesn’t the hospital have to employ unionised labour for work like that?”

“Well the municipality runs the hospital too.”

Gobsmacked was too small a word.

Three years ago, in snow so deep it would have brought Scotland grinding to a halt, I visited the Medas Outdoor Kindergarten in Arctic Norway.

The national Norwegian government had called for farmers to diversify and for children to have at least one full day outside per week. So the local municipality backed a bright idea by local farmers Jostein and Anita Hunstad – a farm kindergarten where the children feed and care for the animals, make hay, grow vegetables and sell eggs and tomatoes in local villages at the weekends to raise funds for school trips. There are now 100 similar farm kindergartens across Norway. A great example of national political direction prompting creative and effective local solutions – not postcode lotteries.

Two winters ago on the Swedish island of Gotland (pop 40,000) I met Development Director Bertil Klintbom who invited me to the opening of a new pier at Slite. For centuries Gotland was a vital stepping stone in Baltic trade and travel until the Cold War ended ferry travel east, causing the rundown of Slite Port.

So the municipality struck on an ambitious plan – in 2008 they controversially gave the Russian government permission to lay a new trans-continental gas pipeline within Gotland’s territorial waters in exchange for a contract using Slite as their Baltic pipe-laying base, an (upfront) payment for its refurbishment and a contribution to the cost of a new hydrogen-powered trans-Baltic ferry. Did the Swedish government have a say?

“Why should they?”

People in Nordic communities do grumble, do moan about taxes and do support mergers amongst the smallest municipalities. But they view councillors as respected neighbours not ill-informed strangers, and expect the bulk of day-to-day decisions about their lives to be taken by people they know.

Last winter, by contrast, most Scottish villagers and city neighbours weren’t sufficiently empowered to organise their own snow-clearing operations. Genuine localism is low-cost but not no-cost and low-maintenance but not no-maintenance. Without central encouragement, devolving resources to communities and ending Big Brother micro-management by higher tiers, we are doomed to waste human capital in Scotland just as we once flared “waste” gas from oil rigs.