Call for Scottish councils to have greater powers

18 Apr 17

Scottish councils should have a general competence to do anything not specifically reserved to Holyrood or Westminster, according the right-of-centre think tank, Reform Scotland.

In a report, Blueprint for Local Power, it also calls for Scotland’s 32 unitary authorities to take full control over local taxes, including the right to add or remove levies, to vary council tax at their own discretion and to set business rates, currently set by Westminster but redistributed across Scotland.

The reforms would require legislation.

Reform Scotland argues that the present lack of fiscal control deters councils from the pursuit of local economic growth, and it compares the imposition of a council tax cap by the Scottish National Party to the rigid Westminster control of domestic rates imposed in the Thatcher era.

Scotland, the report says, has become one of the most centralised countries in the world, with councils losing many key powers over areas like housing, education and the emergency services either to central government or to arm's-length “quango”-type bodies.

Scottish ministers are also committed to pass control of at least 1% of council budgets down to communities.

Geoff Mawdsley, Reform Scotland director, said that councils were responsible for raising just £1.40 of every £10 they spent: “Council tax and business rates should be devolved to local authorities, and thereafter they should be able to introduce new taxes, or scrap existing ones, to fit their local circumstances.

“If there is any point in having a level of local government, and if we want it to mean anything, then we have to allow it to exercise power and with it take responsibility,” Mawdsley added.

“If a task can more effectively be carried out at a local level, it should be devolved to local government instead of sitting at Holyrood.”

The general competence model Reform Scotland proposes for councils is shaped on the key principle of Scotland’s founding devolution legislation.

Rather than define the devolved powers, it provided that Holyrood could do everything except the powers reserved to Westminster.

Reform Scotland is proposing a similar subsidiarity for councils, with functions carried out at the lowest practical level.

Mawdsley said that successive governments in both Edinburgh and London had paid lip service to the idea of respecting local autonomy and accountability.

“Local democracy is at a crossroads - it is time for politicians to follow decades of words with some action,” he said.

The Scottish Government responded by saying that it had already acted to make local taxation more progressive, and was now focused on giving communities additional powers to hold their councils to account.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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