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COSLA commission calls for greater powers for Scottish councils

By Keith Aitken in Edinburgh | 25 April 2014

A report on the future of Scottish local government has dismissed claims that the country has too many councils and has called for the nation’s 32 unitary authorities to be given more powers.

The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, which has an independent membership but was set up by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and is chaired by COSLA president David O’Neill, said in its interim report that Scotland would be fairer, wealthier and healthier if its communities had greater control over the issues that affect them.  

The commission argued that the past 50 years have seen a steady transfer of power from local to central government, but added current constitutional debate afforded an opportunity to improve the governance for Scotland’s communities, whatever the outcome of September’s independence referendum.

Ministers in the Scottish National Party government have removed much of the ring-fencing in council budgets to allow greater local discretion on spending priorities, but have also frozen council tax since 2007. Though the freeze is offset by subsidies from Holyrood, it has provoked frustration among many councillors.

The report, published yesterday, does not recommend specific powers that should be devolved back to local level, but stated greater fiscal decentralisation was needed.

It called for a new way of thinking at all levels of public administration for local services, stating the diversity of Scotland’s communities would be best served by an asymmetrical approach to the distribution of powers, functions and structures.  

‘Local variation rather than standardisation, within a framework of rights, should therefore be a positive consequence of a strong democracy,’ the report said.  

It rejected calls, made in recent years by think-tank Reform Scotland and CBI Scotland among others, that there should be a reduction in the number of councils. The report highlighted that Finland, with a population roughly the same size as Scotland’s, has 320 local authorities. 

‘People are losing trust and confidence in democracy, and fewer and fewer are choosing to vote,’ O’Neill said. ‘Not only that, but this top down way of working hasn’t produced the results that Scotland needs, or tackled the local challenges that people face.

‘We need to recognise that variety is a healthy part of democracy, and make sure that communities themselves have the tools and the freedoms to make choices about services and about how to pay for these,’ he added.

‘Local democracy can unlock the solutions to our nation’s most profound problems, but needs to be empowered to do so. Those changes might be daunting, but that is what we are calling for.’

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