UK Localism: Reduce number of councils but empower them to save “local democracy” in Scotland says think tank

The Information Daily
May 22, 2012

There is a “crisis in local democracy” in Scotland, a new Reform Scotland report published yesterday has claimed highlighting the less than 40% turnout in recent local elections.

To revitalise local governance, the number of Scottish councils should be reduced to 19 from the current 32, the report argues.  However, at the same time, the think tanks also proposes councils must have the powers to run their own health and police services.

“We could change the structure of local government in Scotland, creating fewer councils, but making those councils stronger with more financial powers, as well as looking at ways in which more power could be devolved to community councils,” the report said.

This means the current health boards should be scrapped and those responsibilities should be handed over to the local authorities. In case of police, the report argues that enabling councils to run police services would “reverse the trend of centralisation” while “bring power closer” to the local tax payers.

The report calls for wider devolution of local taxes.  "If one council wants to introduce a land value tax rather than the council tax, it should be free to do so,” the report said. “"Alternatively, if one council wants to scrap second home discounts while another council wants to increase them, reflecting their local circumstances, they should be free to do so."

In addition, the think tank called for these 19 councils to be able to retain and control their business rates.  The report argues this move would facilitate local economic growth.

Reform Scotland also proposed directly elected mayors.  Although, in England, vast majority of cities that held the referendum on directly elected mayors earlier this month rejected the proposal with significant majorities. 

Think tank’s chairman Ben Thomson argued that Holyrood has been usurping the powers of local authorities and this must stop.

"This has to stop. For Scotland's good, we're calling on everyone to work together to renew local government,” he added.  "We hope to start a vital debate in this country which results in a solution being found which empowers our councils and which engages people at election time."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Our approach to reforming Scotland's public services, following on from the Christie Commission's recommendations, is about making sure that they are consistently well-designed and delivered to the right people by the right people - it does not rely on wholesale structural reform.

"Local authorities are already finding innovative ways of collaborating and improving frontline services to deliver the best outcomes for the people of Scotland."