Former education secretary Michael Russell has called for a wholesale restructure of local government, perhaps even local politics.
His vision is to create smaller units of councils, especially in massive rural areas, such as Argyll and the Highlands, where council management can be hundreds of miles away.
At a Glasgow lecture, the SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute suggested that local government “in many places has lost contact with those it is meant to serve”. He has a point, and it would certainly appear that more and more of us are feeling disenfranchised from decision making, whether at local, Holyrood or Westminster level.
Councils are increasingly becoming the delivery body for national priorities. They’re funded by the Scottish Government, and there are strict parameters with what they can do with their allocated budgets. They’ve also been restricted in their ability to raise their own cash for their own local priorities, by being forced to accept a freeze in Council Tax levels for the ninth year in a row. It cannot be good for democracy to have central powers used to dictate how local services are run.
In a small country like Scotland, it will always be easy for central government to dictate policy and services across the board, but they would do well to resist. Our Scottish Government knows all too well the frustration of being handed down orders by Westminster; they need to ensure that they do not do the same to our local councils. There are many eminently sensible ideas coming from the Scottish Government, but questions do have to be asked if the central government has to impose wishes on democratically elected politicians at a local level.
Perhaps Michael Russell is correct, we should look at the size and role of our local government. It’s important that local communities have a voice and an ability to act – with powers and finance – on issues like infrastructure, cleansing, planning, facilities and youth work. The current system can make it difficult for communities to be heard when they are far from the administrative centres. Local communities might well be better served with smaller, more accountable councils, focusing on issues that can be changed at a local level.
However, here we encounter the perennial problem of politics. Will anyone want to pay more tax to fund it?