Thursday, 15 January 2009

Keeping the local in local government

The Herald today launched a debate about whether there should be a local government shake-up in Scotland, suggesting that the number of local authorities could be cut from 32 to 10.

There is some merit to what they say. There's no particular reason why Scotland should have 32 local authorities and the way the boundaries are drawn around some of Scotland's cities (especially Glasgow) doesn't seem to have a great deal of logic behind it.

But there are reasons to be sceptical about whether creating just 10 super-authorities is the right approach. For a start, the idea that this is the optimum number of local authorities doesn't seem to be based on any particular evidence. If larger bodies are inherently more efficient, then why bother having local government at all? Why not just have a single director of education sitting in Edinburgh, or a single Scotland-wide waste collection contract?

Of course, this argument could be applied even further: let's just run everything from London or Brussels. And it simply isn't the case that larger organisations are inherently more efficient than smaller ones; they offer far more scope for bureaucratic nonsense, while smaller ones are often more flexible and responsive.

And that's highlighted by some of the examples The Herald focuses on. People in Clackmannanshire, for instance, seem to appreciate the services they get from their local council and the way they can get things done quickly and easily. And East Dunbartonshire is described as one of Scotland's smallest and most successful authorities.

Another problem is that this is a bizarre time to introduce such a debate. With the economy in recession and councils facing a severe financial squeeze, is it really the time for local government to go through a costly reorganisation? That's especially the case when, as Richard Kerley notes, the projected savings from previous local government shake-ups have often been overstated or even illusory.

But the biggest difficulty with The Herald's proposals is that by reducing the number of local authorities to just 10, you're inevitably taking government further away from people and reducing the opportunities for people to get involved. If local government is to have any meaning, then it has to involve people having the ability to shape what happens in their patch. Having 10 super-authorities will make that far more difficult.

Indeed, I would argue there is a case for having smaller authorities rather than bigger ones. Golspie has as much right to decide how it's governed as Glasgow does. It's also a nonsense that Highland Council stretches from Durness in the north-west to Dalwhinnie in the south-east, a distance of getting on for 200 miles. Highland Council covers an area roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium.

But The Herald is to be congratulated for raising this debate, as it is important to consider the future of local government. However, the discussion should be centring more on empowering local communities by drawing down as much power from Holyrood as possible. We should also be looking at giving local authorities the right to raise finance from a defined range of taxes, rather than focusing on the sterile debate about replacing council tax with local income tax.

Local government does need to be revitalised. But creating super-authorities is not the answer. Local government must stay local.

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