Are SNP proposals to clip the wings of local government half-baked?

There’s an interesting row brewing about the powers of Scotland’s 32 councils. Put briefly it seems as if the SNP government hope to limit their autonomy and responsibilities. According to The Times, proposals might include:

  1. neighbouring local authorities having to merge some services. The human resources function is cited as an example but the paper adds ‘the same will be expected in education, tourism and a number of other areas where good practice can be shared and money saved’
  2. devolving other functions down to local areas, although the only example given is bin collections, if they ‘can be handled at a town rather than a regional [sic] level’
  3. transferring other functions to central government. Again only one possible example is given, responsibility for all roads being passed to Transport Scotland, although the government is ‘looking at all the services that councils provide and might strip local authorities of responsibility for certain sectors … if they feel these areas could be handled better centrally by a Scotland-wide body.’

If necessary the government ‘will legislate … to force local authorities to accept the changes.’ And it’ll all happen after next May’s council elections. Interestingly the only reference I can find to any of these in the SNP Holyrood election manifesto for May 2016, only six months ago, is on page 33:

Consult on and introduce a Bill that will decentralise local authority functions, budgets and democratic oversight to local communities.

That might just about fit with point 2. above but the manifesto says nothing about merging services or delivering them by national bodies.

Taken together, the proposals, at least as leaked, seem to me half-baked.

Joint delivery of some functions (for example procurement) often happens already but the examples given range from the huge (education, where many other actions are already in hand) to the inconsequential (tourism, where most responsibilities were stripped away to Visit Scotland years ago).

It looks as if that manifesto pledge to ‘decentralise local authority functions, budgets and democratic oversight to local communities’ now boils down to ‘towns can collect the bins.’ Heaven knows what they mean by ‘towns.’ Apart from the fact that much of the population lives in cities or rural areas, there are no democratic structures at this level capable of delivering what would now be a fragmented and very local service, albeit one where all the pressures to reduce and recycle waste suggest larger, not much smaller, units to manage.

As for more major services being run nationally, my heart sinks. In the one example given, roads, it would presumably imply in my wee cul de sac that a small pothole (perhaps even a loose pavement slab or a flickering street light) have to be prioritised and dealt with by an agency of central government. In a word, crazy.

Of course, all this comes on top of proposals to devolve some power away from councils directly to schools, as well as what might be called colloquially the ‘council tax grab,’ with money raised by higher council taxes on larger houses being pooled nationally and redistributed from better off to poorer areas (discussed here). Councils are not happy with these proposals and according to The Herald are planning to boycott meetings with the government about them.

The Times claims that the plans for any changes will only be revealed after the May council elections ‘after which ministers hope there will be more SNP-run councils around the country, a political shift that could make the changes easier to implement.’ After some of the recent council local by-elections I wouldn’t be too sure. I reported a couple of results recently where the SNP didn’t do well. Further by-elections are due shortly in Angus and Dundee. Poor SNP performances there, especially in ‘Yes city’ Dundee, may well suggest that post-May there might be fewer rather than more SNP-run councils. If I were the opposition parties, I’d be highlighting all the downsides of the various proposals as hard as I could before those May elections.

Apart from this, there’s the small issue that what is now a minority government still has to get any proposals through parliament. If the opposition parties all turned up and all voted against a package of proposals they would fall. The weakest link in this hypothesis would be the Greens, who might be attracted by any decentralisation proposals but would surely be put off by fiurther centralisation of control, especially for roads, as well as sceptical of the sustainability implications of ‘town ‘ bin collections.

Still, the leak of information to the media about possibilities post-May is just one step on a much longer journey before anything happens. I’ll watch the next steps with interest.

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