Monthly Archives: May 2015

Local government – time for change?

One of the themes that emerged during the debate on Scottish independence was a call for greater decentralisation within Scotland. All parties pay lip service to local government and some occasionally wax lyrical about a vibrant local democracy as a sign of a healthy society. However very little in the way of concrete proposals for reform of our current local government set-up has seen the light of day. Much of the criticism of local government stems from the popular dislike of the Council Tax. This has been frozen for so long now that it would appear to be beyond repair or revival. No party has as yet come up with any acceptable alternative. The new Commission on local tax reform may succeed where others have failed to tread. However, the Council Tax is not all that is wrong with the current set-up.  I have some major criticisms of the present regime – it is neither local, democratic, independent nor does it allow for proper government.

There is little about local government in Scotland that merits the word local. As is well known, Scotland is pretty much unique in Europe when it comes to this level of government. Firstly, we are almost alone in having just one tier of local government. Apart from the rest of the UK, every other country has a regional or county authority in addition to a local authority. Secondly, Scotland has the smallest number of local authorities – 32. On the other hand our local councils are among the largest in terms of population and area. While many countries have seen a reduction in the number of local authorities, none has gone as far as Scotland. Denmark for example, carried out a major re-structuring of local government in 2007. This still left the country with 98 local councils – more than three times the number in Scotland. Yet Denmark has an almost identical population to Scotland. Whatever our current set-up is, local it is not.

It is not very democratic either. At least as far as participation goes. There are far less councillors per capita in Scotland than in any other European country. Far less people put their name forward for election, and the participation at elections is the lowest in Europe. This is almost certainly in large part due to the large size and remoteness of our councils.

Size of course is only one part of the equation. We need also to think about the government part of local government. It is impossible to work out a coherent concept of local without first determining what is the purpose of local government. What is a local authority there to do?

We are all reasonably familiar with the range of services provided by local authorities, from bin collection to education and social work. There may though be less familiarity with what actual powers a local authority has in relation to these services. This brings us to the heart of the matter – to what extent do local authorities actually govern? As regards government, there are two aspects to this which seem to me to be crucial.  The first is the power to raise money and the second is the power to decide on what services, if any, should be provided. This to me is what government is all about – taking key decisions on the raising and spending of taxes.  Under our current system, local councils have very little of either power.

The powers they do have are of three kinds: mandatory, permissive and regulatory. However only actions that are permissive are under the full control of councils. In the case of Education and Social Work, the two main mandatory functions which also take up most of the money and employ most of the staff, councils have very little, if any, scope for decision taking.   Dundee Council for example cannot decide to start primary schooling at the age of seven instead of five.  It cannot decide to reduce the school leaving age to 14.  All the key decisions relating to schools and social work are taken at the national level.  This includes class sizes, qualifications for staff and salaries.  Now all of this is a good thing.  Hardly anyone in Scotland wants 32 different schooling systems or social work standards.

It is also worth pointing out that this is the norm across Europe, even in the Nordic countries so beloved of local government reformers. It is the national governments and parliaments which take the key decisions in relation to education and social work, not the local authorities. This centralising trend has also spread to Switzerland, probably the most decentralised country in Europe. There, it is the cantons which have responsibility for all aspects of education. But even in Switzerland the 26 cantons have all agreed to a new Harmonisation programme, which will ensure that all schools across the country will have the same basic structure and will work to the same national learning outcomes or curriculum.

What local authorities do in Scandinavia and now in Switzerland is to manage and administer what is in effect a national service. They get to decide where to build new or replacement schools for example, but they have virtually no say in what is taught or how it is to be taught or who can do the teaching. These decisions are all taken at the national level, as here in Scotland. The same will apply to most other public services run by local authorities. The key decisions on level of provision and standards are taken at the national level.

When it comes to finance, things appear to be very different in most of Europe, certainly in the Nordic countries. But, I would suggest, they only appear to be different. There, local authorities are responsible for raising a much larger part of their income, mainly through personal income tax. In most Nordic countries only local authorities can set income tax. However there are pretty strict limitations on how much this can vary from one authority to another. Then there is the matter of equalisation, whereby richer local authorities have to raise extra revenues which go to the central government which in turn hands this money to the poorer local authorities. So in effect it is the national government which determines how much income local authorities have to spend. It is just much more obvious here in Scotland.

This should not be surprising. Since it is the central government which sets the key objectives, standards etc the central government has to ensure that local authorities have the necessary income to deliver the services. The alternative would be to take the delivery away from local authorities and set up a national service. Which of course is what happens here in Scotland with the health service and now with the police and emergency services. NHS Scotland is completely funded out of general taxation and there is no local element whatsoever. At least not in the sense of an elected element. As its name confirms health is seen as a national service, and is funded accordingly.

In this regard it is worth noting that in most of northern Europe health services are also part of local government, usually at a regional level. In Denmark for example there are five regional councils, whose main responsibility is to manage the provision of hospital services. They are not too dissimilar from our health boards, but with some development and transport responsibilities. They have no revenues of their own and are funded directly by the government and local authorities.

Moving forward

The main criticisms of the current system are to do with size and finance. As regards size, for most functions the 32 local authorities are simply too large to be a focus for local decision making. On the other hand, for others, planning, the environment and transport for example, these authorities are often too small. One way forward would be to revisit the need for a regional tier of government for these and similar functions.

In relation to the remaining local government functions smaller authorities are more likely to meet the needs of local people. With the mandatory powers in relation to education and social work, local authorities primarily act as a provider of services. They have little in the way of decision making powers. Their main role is to ensure that the service meets local needs. Smaller sized authorities are more likely to reach decisions which reflect the views of the people living in that particular area. This would also be the case with the range of discretionary powers over the likes of arts, libraries, community facilities, leisure and recreation etc.

When it comes to finance a distinction may need to be made between education and social work services and discretionary services. In the case of education and social work, since the role of the local authority is to manage the delivery of what is in effect, a national service, it may be more appropriate that all of the finance for these functions should come directly from central government. Local authorities should not have to raise money for a national service.

The other main powers – discretionary and regulatory – can be self-financed through taxes and charges. There may still be a need for some equalisation element to ensure that poorer authorities are not disadvantaged, but in general terms, local councils should be responsible for raising the money to pay for whatever discretionary services they wish to deliver.

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Local tax reform

The Scottish government recently set up a Commission on local tax reform. The Commission’s remit is, “To identify and examine alternative systems of local taxation that would deliver a fairer system of local taxation to support the funding of services delivered by local government.” This is a welcome and timely initiative, as most people do regard the council tax as unfair. Unfortunately, no-one as yet has come up with a workable alternative. I wish the Commission every success in their endeavours.

However, I do feel that you cannot have a meaningful discussion of local finance without first determining what local government should do and what size of local governments we want. Local government has probably always been a balance between local and national government, in terms of provision, priorities and funding. Increasingly this balance has tilted quite massively towards the national level.

This trend is perhaps most clearly illustrated by education, in particular, school education. The public provision of schools started as a local provision, first with parishes and then through local authorities. Post war developments however have seen nearly all the key decisions affecting schools taken at the national level.

Though Scotland may not have a formal national curriculum, it has always had one in practice. With a sole exam board, schools necessarily had to tailor their curriculum to meet the requirements of this board. Since the 1960’s at the latest, the Scottish Education Department has taken an ever increasing role in developing the curriculum, culminating in the Curriculum for Excellence. It is worth noting that this curriculum was an initiative of the last Labour/LibDem coalition and was supported by all parties at Holyrood. While teachers have an increased responsibility for its implementation, there is not doubt that this is in essence a national curriculum for all schools.

Staffing is another aspect of education that is determined at the national level. Qualifications, conditions of service and salaries for staff are all determined and negotiated at the national level. The standards for school buildings is also a national standard. While there is some local flexibility around holidays, the number of hours that pupils must spend in school is set nationally.

This is not altogether surprising and is almost certainly the norm in other countries. Education in the sense of public schools is now essentially a national service that is delivered locally. In this it has much in common with the NHS. The public provision of health services only began in the late 1940’s and was from the go, set up as a national service, with no direct involvement by local authorities. I wonder if the public provision of schools had only started at the same time would it too have been set up as a national service, outwith local control?

This leaves two crucial aspects of education that remain in a kind of limbo – accountability and funding. Though, as the recent questions around levels of literacy and numeracy show, accountability for educational performance is increasing seen as a national issue. Questions are asked in parliament to the relevant minister and not primarily to the 32 local authorities, who actually run the schools.

Funding is of course one of the most crucial elements in any service. Here too, most of the funding for schools comes from central government in the form of grants. However local authorities still have to raise a significant part of their overall budget, mainly from the council tax. My question is why? If education is seen primarily as a national service, why not provide all the funding for it out of general taxation? This is what we do with the health service. I am not sure there would be much support among the public for part of the funding for the health service to come from local taxes, whether this is the council tax or its replacement.

I must point out that I am referring to the funding for education. The delivery and the management of schools can remain a local authority task. There would have to be a formal compact or agreement between the Scottish government and local authorities to cover this, but that is what happens to a large extent at the moment. Taking funding out of local taxation would I contend lead to greater transparency and ultimately greater accountability for how much is spent on education.

I have concentrated on education as it is one of the largest elements in the budgets of local authorities. Much of what I have written above will probably apply to many parts of the Social Work budget as well.

My central point is that before we can debate alternatives to the council tax we need to look beyond the current balance between local and national funding. If the funding for what are essentially national services comes out of general taxation, this would change the whole debate over local taxation.

The Commission has now issued a call for evidence from members of the public, both individuals and groups. You can find out more about the work of the Commission and how to respond here.



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Another Referendum?

Lots of people it seems are getting quite excited about the prospect of another independence referendum in Scotland. In large part this is due to the double outcome of the recent UK election – a massive win for the SNP in Scotland alongside the return of a Tory government at Westminster. Some people are keen to start a campaign to put pressure on the SNP to hold another referendum in the near future. I think this is unwise. First of all because the SNP made it clear that this election was not about another referendum. For them to suddenly change their mind on this would be severely damaging to their own credibility with the Scottish electorate. But more importantly to call for another referendum without the confidence that we will win would be disastrous for independence. To lose another vote close after the first would set back the prospect of independence decades or more. It is jut not worth it. We need to take a bit of time and think carefully about when and how we can demand another referendum.

55%+ This was the winning share of the vote in the last referendum and just about everyone has regarded this as a clear victory. Particularly those on the No side, who have made much about 55% being a substantial and clear result. 55% was also the target set in the Montenegro referendum in 2006.  Independence was achieved with 55.5% of the vote. Interestingly the rest of the world recognised this result, including Spain! This then should be our minimum target for a future referendum. I know that 50.1% is legally a win, but we should aim for much more. 50.1% can hardly be claimed to be the settled will of Scotland. Independence is not something to be taken lightly. I want a clear majority of my fellow citizens to be convinced of independence. That way we can all confidently move forward. 55% should become our base line. No talk about another referendum until we are convinced that we can get over this figure.

60%+ In any future referendum we can expect once again the whole might and machinery of the British establishment and their allies in the media to be thrown at us. Project Fear will be resuscitated and if possible doubled in resources. We must be prepared for some people to be swayed by this fear factor again. Hence the 60%+. We need to have the support of well over 60% of the population before thinking about calling another referendum.

Consistent support will also be a requirement. I would want polls to show over 60% in favour of independence for at least a year and preferably longer. This lead also needs to be stable. It is no good if polls fluctuate widely with some over 60% and others much lower. Remember, losing another referendum is not an option.

The above outlines my views on the level of support for independence we will need for another referendum. This will determine when that referendum could be held. There is also though the not so small matter of who has the right to call another referendum and on what basis. It would be nice to just call a snap referendum when you are 99.9% certain you will win, but that is almost impossible to do. Other than expecting to win, there has to be some kind of justification for holding another referendum.

The SNP has raised the notion of “material change” into the debate. This is suitably vague, but the actual material change that is deemed serious enough to give rise to another referendum would need to be accepted as sufficiently serious by a clear majority in Scotland. Otherwise there is the risk that many voters would be alienated enough to vote No again. Voters do not look kindly on being asked to vote on someone else’s whim. This means that there is a second hurdle for us to overcome before calling for another referendum. The justification for the referendum has to be accepted by a majority.

There is one final hurdle to overcome before another referendum. That is who can legally call one?  The SNP long argued that the Scottish Parliament had the right to call one. This interpretation of the Scotland Act was vigorously challenged, and not just by Unionists. When the last referendum did come about it was by virtue of an agreement with the UK government and legislation passed at Westminster. The fact that the SNP agreed to this, leads me to believe that the SNP had themselves come to the conclusion that Holyrood does not have the legal right to call a referendum on what is still regarded as a reserved matter, i.e. the constitution.

Our new masters at Westminster have made it pretty clear that they will not allow another referendum in the lifetime of the current UK parliament, which is due to run until 2020. It does not look likely that either Labour or the LibDems would favour another referendum either. Though both these parties are so weak and likely to remain weak well after 2020, that their views are not that important. While things change and we cannot rule out the possibility that the Tories might agree to another referendum, I doubt it very much. They only agreed to the last one because they were super confident they would  win and win by a mile. They got a bit of a shock. The next time, another referendum would only be called when the SNP was super confident of winning.

In these circumstances, with polls consistently, over a number of years, showing a big, big vote for independence, the UK government might, just might, realise the game is up and concede gracefully. I wouldn’t bet anything on it though. UK governments are not known for acting gracefully. At least not until after the event. If the UK government were to stubbornly refuse another referendum against the clear wishes of an overwhelming majority of Scots, what then? The only option I can foresee is that the next election, UK or Scottish, is turned into a plebiscitary election. If a majority of the electorate vote for parties in favour if independence, and this vote is over 50%, preferably well over 55%, then the Scottish government declares independence.

This would work, both domestically and internationally, provided that there was a large enough majority for independence in Scotland and the UK government was seen as denying Scots their right to a democratic vote.  At present we are a very long way off from this possible outcome. As I have outlined above we are also a very long way off the conditions for calling for another referendum. We need time to increase support for independence so it becomes the clear and settled will of well over 60% of all Scots. Much work to be done.


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Election 2015 – Initial Reflections

So no coalition then! The final result was a big surprise to just about everyone. Some joy in the big SNP vote and dismay and fear in the overall Tory win. There will be time to pick over the bones of the election, but here are my initial thoughts on what happened and what might happen next.

1. The size of the SNP win was almost unbelievable. Surely they could not win 56 seats in Scotland and wipe out not just Labour but also the LibDems? But they did, all but one Labour and LibDem survived the onslaught, alongside our statutory Tory MP. The scale of the victory was a bit surprising, but the victory itself was never in doubt.

There were early indications of the coming tsunami immediately after the referendum. Way back last September there was an impromptu public gathering in the centre of Dundee. The meeting was taken over by ordinary members of the public who, possibly for the first time in their lives, stepped forward to speak out at a public meeting. Their message was almost 100% anger and bitterness, especially against Labour. Their call was to join the SNP or at least vote SNP.  All such comments met with rapturous applause. Now Dundee was a Yes city, so such a response was maybe to be expected, but it soon became clear that this simple message – join or vote SNP – was to be repeated and shared across the whole of the country.

Part of the success must also go to Nicola Sturgeon, who was probably the star of the campaign, and not just in Scotland. As the election drew nearer, the support for the SNP grew even larger. To win just over 50% of the vote on a high turnout was incredible. To win 56 out of 59 MPS is down to the absurdities of our First Past the Post election system. FPTP is inherently unfair and undemocratic, and every so often produces really exceptional results. Interestingly the SNP oppose FPTP, while Labour supports it. Perhaps time for Labour to think again about this one?

2. While the SNP ran a very positive campaign, Labour in Scotland ran a truly awful campaign. Their two key messages to the Scottish electorate boiled down to a) vote Labour to stop the Tories, and b) SNP are bad, bad and even badder. I know they had more things to say, some quite positive, but these other messages were continually drowned out by the above two claims. Both were ludicrous and everyone knew they were.

Firstly, in 2010 Labour played the same card, vote Labour to keep the Tories out, and Scotland by a large majority did. And what happened? The Tories still got in, admittedly with the support of the LibDems. However the key lesson that Scottish voters learned from 2010, was voting Labour did not guarantee a Labour government at Westminster. Only English voters can do that. Repeating a failed mantra from five years ago was a not particularly bright idea.

Secondly, constantly claiming that the SNP are bad and not to be trusted was a incredibly stupid line to take. The SNP was and is very, very popular in Scotland, witness its electoral success in 2011. It is also respected and trusted by very large numbers of Scots, including voters of other parties. In large measure due to their record in government in Scotland where they are widely seen as both competent and caring. Then of course we have the Nicola factor. The most popular party leader by far, and yet Labour try to portray the SNP as bad, bad, bad. Truly dreadful stuff, and who advises Labour on these matters?

Labour in Scotland were also not helped by Labour in England who ran a mildly austerity-lite campaign, which never succeeded in inspiring anyone. Jumping on the anti-SNP bandwagon did them no favours neither in Scotland nor in England. Not a very good show by Labour in England.

3 The LibDem wipe-out was a just reward for a party that betrayed its roots and its electorate. Putting party prestige and ministerial posts before the needs of the country in 2010, condemned them utterly and not just in Scotland. They were elected in 2010 primarily on an anti Tory and anti austerity platform, which had more in common with Labour. Yet within days they had sold out to the Tories and signed up as willing supporters of economic polices that have led to the worst and longest recession ever. And in return they got a few crumbs and nothing of substance, no electoral reform, no steps towards that federal nirvana they keep talking about. The ultimate talking-shop, that is what the LibDems have become.

4. The Tories remain toxic in Scotland. They continue to make little or no progress in their attempts to win back popularity, even in former Tory voting parts of the country. Their current leader, Ruth Davidson, continues to get rave reviews in the media, but has failed almost as much as her LibDem and Labour counterparts. No great surprise there, as our media is overwhelming right wing and keen to talk up the Tories in Scotland. Ruth Davidson, much like her predecessor, Annabel Goldie, is a well enough liked person, but I suspect that both failed to realise that we were not laughing with them, but laughing at them.

A brief word about the Tory campaign in England. This was a disgrace. Their economic and social policies are reactionary and based on a lie – see this excellent series by Simon Wren-Lewis for confirmation of this. Alas their anti-Scottish rhetoric and campaign went beyond disgraceful. Racism, pure and simple, is what the Tories in England descended to in their desperate attempt to cling onto power in England. Truly the nasty party is alive and kicking.

5. Despite my abhorrence of the Tories, I recognise that their victory is perfectly legitimate, even in Scotland. Last September Scotland voted by a clear majority to stay in the UK. Part and parcel of that decision was accepting that it is the electorate across the whole of the UK which gets to decide who forms the government. This was a UK general election and the Tories won an overall majority. No grounds for complaining now. It is true that the Tory vote share across the UK was only just over 37%. But if you add on the 12% who voted UKIP, the right wing bloc won almost half of the votes. The Tory majority comes from the iniquities of FPTP,  but we all know this can happen. If you don’t like FPTP, vote for parties that favour real PR.

6. The election confirmed in a stunning way the extent to which the UK has become an ever more disunited kingdom. Despite their victory overall, the Tories have become effectively an English party with minority support in Scotland and Wales and none in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, Labour remains dominant in Wales, while the SNP are now even more dominant in Scotland, building on its success in 2011. Northern Ireland has always had its own parties and its own political system. The UK appears more broken than ever after this election.

7. What is perhaps more worrying from a Unionist perspective, is that these results seem to reflect a persistent and growing divide on policy issues between England and the Celtic parts of the kingdom. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, anti-austerity parties won substantial majorities. While England continues to elect pro-austerity parties. Clearly there are significant differences across England, but as a country the majority in England seem willing to continue with the Tories’ unnecessary and unjust austerity policies.

This divide in policy preferences probably extends to other key issues such as the NHS, education and housing. It may also extend to our membership of the EU, with pro-EU majorities in Wales and Scotland. Not sure where all the Northern Irish parties stand on the EU.

7. What next? Given all the differences in results and policy preferences exposed by this election, something has to change if the the UK is to survive. While I remain convinced that independence for Scotland is the way forward, this is not likely to happen anytime soon. Therefore it is in my interest to make the UK a more effective and responsive state, for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK. This can only mean a move towards a Federal UK. Already some people from both Labour and the Tories have begun to talk about this. An interesting take on this can be found here, where John Denham writes about the need for an  English Labour party. Who would ever have thought it. Changing times indeed!

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