I nearly spluttered over my porridge when I saw the headline on 'Scotland on Sunday' proclaiming 'Scottish Local Authorities Face the Axe'. Was this the latest wheeze of Johann Lamont's Cuts Commission? No there was a picture of Scotland's Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill and quotes from a Q&A at the International Policing Conference which was held in Edinburgh last week.
Against the backdrop of the creation of a single Scottish Police Force and a question on whether with that in mind it was right to have 32 councils Mr MacAskill had said “The status quo is not tenable. It was not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life,” he did go on to say that "not everything has to be a single service."
To be fair others have raised this issue - most recently Reform Scotland proposed cutting the number of Councils to 19. However Kenny MacAskill is a senior Scottish Cabinet figure and therefore the statement carries more weight. Could this be the direction of travel of the Scottish Government? Would this be the SNP vision of local democracy in an Independent Scotland?
You could say calm down it was only an off the cuff answer made in front of police officers. On the other hand it could be interpreted as laying down a marker to local government across Scotland to reform or die. In the current climate of budget squeeze its much more likely to be the latter.
As I expected when I read the story there was a quick response from the Scottish Government saying it has "no plans to merge local authorities" however it was in favour of "closer service integration". That last bit is about shared services where progress has been glacial.
Local government had its last structural reform in the mid 1990s when Regional Councils where merged with District Councils to form the current unitary system. Many councils are only just emerging from the aftermath of that re-organisation so it is not something that there is generally a huge appetite for. It may also, to some extent, explain the lack of progress on sharing of services between councils. No one wants to give up overall control, power and budget. However there is also the elephant in the room - budget cuts. There are more deep cuts to come as local government budgets shrink while demands and costs grow.
Then there is the conundrum of the low turnout at local government elections. In some ways its a paradox - the level of government that actually delivers many of the services that we use in our daily life attracts paltry interest from voters when it comes to the ballot box.
Merging councils would undoubtedly make councils more remote from those they serve so it would seem unlikely that such a reconfiguration would solve the public engagement issue. The likelihood is that it would make matters worse. A bigger council would be much more likely to make decisions on a strategic level rather than a local level thereby lessening the ability of locals including local councillors to influence decisions in favour of localities.
So does it have to happen? Well, remember there are no plans. But its there and there should be room for debate on the issue. What does Scotland need in terms of local governance under a devolved Parliament? And what would it need in an Independent Scotland?
My friend Councillor Dave Berry put forward his ideas on his blog. Essentially a two tier structure of regions or city regions with lean burgh councils beneath. Not a bad stab at a thorny issue. The Jimmy Reid Foundation produced a report earlier this year which made a strong case that Scotland is operating the least democratic system of local governance in Europe. Commentator Lesley Riddoch has already responded to Kenny MacAskill's comments here. It is also timely that Mackay Hannah are holding a conference in April entitled 'Re-imagining Scottish Local Government: Councils and the Future of Scotland'.
I said in a post earlier this year that a debate should be had and I maintain that position. However that does not mean I'm in favour of centralising local power in larger councils. The debate I want to see is how do we democratise what we have? Do we need to make any changes to the current structure? How do we make the services provided more accountable to local people and how do we give local communities a stronger say in delivery of services and on the budget priorities in their area?
As a quick example take Edinburgh where I was a councillor for twelve years. Would I want to see that council made bigger? Answer - no. Would I want to see decisions being taken with more involvement of the communities of Edinburgh? Answer - yes. Edinburgh already has the structure in the Neighbourhood Partnerships but these are advisory and with relatively little budget to decide locally. However that could be changed giving the partnerships more clout and as the local community councils are involved as partners perhaps invigorating them (in all those years as a Leith councillor not one of the Leith Community Councils has had an election as they haven't had enough nominations to trigger one) by giving them a strong say in how budgets are spent in the local area. Leith Neighbourhood Partnership has already used participative methods to decide Community Grant spending. Edinburgh has also taken the recent step of opening out the Council's budget process though it is too early to tell how that will be received. These are small but significant steps in opening up the closed circuit of council processes to the public they serve. Could it go further and have something like Leith or Portobello burgh councils sitting beneath the overarching City Council with the former delivering the local services and the latter the strategic priorities of the City?
I think some debate on devolution of power and budget might deliver something that is responsive to communities and might just work. Perhaps its a spanner that local government needs and not the axe.