Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee
Meeting date: Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Local Government in Scotland: Overview 2023, Devolving Scotland
- Decision on Taking Business in Private
- Local Government in Scotland: Overview 2023
- Devolving Scotland
We now move to item 3, which is an evidence-taking session with Reform Scotland on its devolving Scotland initiative. The intention is that the session will allow the committee to further explore issues relating to the on-going review of local governance and build on the success of our recent joint event with Scotland’s Futures Forum on the future relationship between local and central government in Scotland. We are joined for this item by Alison Payne, the research director at Reform Scotland. I welcome Alison to the committee.
I will start with a few questions, and then I will bring in colleagues. You once said:
“Scotland is unusual internationally in the weakness of its local authorities.”
I am interested in hearing why you said that and about how Scotland’s local democracy compares with that in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe.
We have previously commented, and it was referenced earlier in your meeting, that the finance powers of local authorities in Scotland are considerably weak. As was mentioned earlier this morning, on the continent, 40 to 50 per cent of revenue is raised by local authorities. We do not have complete control over any of our revenue streams, be it council tax or non-domestic rates. Indeed, the 2002 Local Government Committee recommended devolving non-domestic rates in full. Rents, fees and charges is about the only area of finance in which local authorities have that degree of flexibility, so you end up with the huge variation that we see with, for example, music tuition. Issues become more contentious, because those are the only opportunities that local authorities have to try to raise some revenue.
We also have a strange system. There is a lot of discussion about the number of local authorities in Scotland and, depending on to whom you speak, there are either too many or too few, but no one seems to agree that 32 is the right number. For example, Highland Council is often cited as a ridiculous set-up, with huge differences between what is going on in Nairn and what is going on in Inverness. At the same time, Clackmannanshire Council is often used as an example of a very small area. If you look to the continent, however, there are far smaller local authorities, with multiple tiers, or spheres, of authority, where more revenue is raised, mutual partnership working is part of the culture, the powers are passed down and respected, and there is an idea that things can be done differently.
What I was struck by in the Scotland’s Futures Forum report is the comment about accepting and respecting the decisions that you may disagree with as those decisions are made and people are democratically accountable for them. It was particularly interesting that the report mentioned that respecting those decisions is as much for Opposition politicians as it is for central Government. Since devolution, we have seen things—whether they are to do with workplace parking, city entry charges or whatever—being sucked up to a national level rather than being dealt with at the local level, with a view to what is right for local areas.10:45
The latest example of that is workplace parking. How you fund or pay for parking in Glasgow city centre is completely different to how you do it in rural Moray, and it should be allowed to be completely different. It is about taking a step back and allowing those decisions to be taken, and we have not quite got there yet.
You mentioned that it had been recommended that responsibility for non-domestic rates be devolved. My understanding is that there would be concern if you had variation in rates for businesses that have branches in lots of different council areas. That would be a difficult one for them.
Equally, there are companies that work across the border—they might be in Carlisle and in Dumfries and Galloway—and have to deal with the Scottish and English business rate poundage. It can be done. Companies will always say that they want simplicity and only want one rate. The business rate review made the point that it would be better if the system were simplified. However, if you took that to its logical conclusion, you would have one rate for the whole of the UK. There is variation, and it is about accepting the differences in what is going on in our local authority areas and their different economies.
That is a really useful insight. We have been doing quite a bit of work on understanding the barriers to local elected office. I am interested to hear Reform’s perspective on what more can be done to help Scotland’s councils be more representative of their diverse communities and what role could—what needs to be done to improve council remuneration. I absolutely agree that it needs to be improved; I am not sure why I stumbled on that question.
We totally agree with that as well. As I pointed out before, there are people running our cities who earn less than an MSP. That is not to say that one is better or worse than the other: it is more about the parity of esteem that we spoke about. If you are running a major city and are not being well remunerated, you may be thinking about your pension or future and may be having to juggle something else. We are not necessarily attracting the best people. Even when we start to attract a more diverse group of people to stand for and get elected to local authorities, we often find that they only serve one term because the reality of the juggling involved means that they leave. So, there is an awful lot that we need to look at in the terms and conditions of councillors.
When the previous reforms to the voting system were brought in, there was an increase in remuneration, but being a councillor is still considered to be a part-time job when, in reality, it is not. Speaking to councillors from years ago, there were no emails back then and there was not the same amount of correspondence on issues to deal with. Councillors do not have the necessary support staff, and there is a load of issues around pensions and other elements. How do we build up expertise if people are finding that being a councillor is simply not a sustainable option?
Yes, something definitely needs to be done. The Scottish local authority remuneration committee is busy reviewing the remuneration piece too, so hopefully we will see some progress on that. As you said, someone who is responsible for the city of Edinburgh, for example, is considered to be part-time and is paid as such. That is concerning.
It is a difficult issue. Going to the electorate and saying that politicians need to be paid more is never a popular manifesto pledge. However, there needs to be broader understanding of what our councils are responsible for. If you increase awareness and understanding of the importance of councils and how they are responsible for schools and roads, people will want councillors to have expertise. There needs to be some work done to explain to people, and help them understand, why we are talking about paying politicians more and why that is important.
I do not know what the salary is at the moment. I think that it is around £19,000 per year.
Something like that.
Most people do not understand that that is as much as a straight-up councillor gets as their salary. I am interested to hear what Reform Scotland would like to see in the forthcoming legislation. There is the local democracy bill and, as I mentioned in the previous evidence session, the community wealth building bill. What are the opportunities there?
A lot of the issues that have been discussed already this morning in terms of the fiscal framework and longer-term financial planning are key. We must properly review our system of local government, including its boundaries, numbers and functions. Earlier, there was a discussion about financial powers. There needs to be far greater discussion about and acceptance of what we are going to do. We talked about replacing council tax, then we talked about a local income tax, then we talked about whether to have a citizens’ assembly to replace council tax. Actually, instead of replacing one centrally dictated tax with another, why can we not allow local authorities to develop their own local taxation? What is the best way to deal with, say, second homes in the Highlands or a land value tax somewhere else? What works in different areas? If we are to reform local taxation, local authorities definitely need to be brought into that so that they have the power to reform.
We have referred to different issues in the past relating to, as I have mentioned, the finance side of things and looking at directly elected mayors or provosts. We have also said—again, there was reference to the Australian council of local government in the fiscal futures paper—that we would like to see a quarterly meeting between the First Minister and council leaders, a public gathering where there is that sort of parity and you can talk through the delivery and different options so that, if central Government sets out what it wants the outcomes to be, there can be public discussion about how the delivery of a policy in one area will not work elsewhere, and they can learn from each other. It would also be positive to help the public to see local authorities in action.
There is a range of structural bits. Then, looking at the powers, can we pilot certain things to give more responsibility to local authorities, looking at areas where there are coterminous boundaries? We see the mess that is the national care service, around what is and is not centralised and what is going backwards and forwards at the moment. Can we look at where there are coterminous boundaries between health boards and local authority areas to try to improve joined-up working? Can we give local authorities, say, responsibility for health in places such as Fife, where there are those coterminous boundaries, so we can try to better join up social care and health?
Ultimately, a lot will come down to the financial arrangements. It was telling that the Accounts Commission and Audit Scotland said earlier that, if you really want to look at the preventative agenda, you need to think about that longer-term financial planning. The prevention agenda is key. We cannot fix something in six or 12 months. The reality is that we are not going to fix it over an electoral cycle. We need to start looking beyond that, at those longer-term issues and how we start fixing them.
Thanks for that; it was good to hear. You talked about boundaries before, but then you unpacked that piece about coterminous boundaries in some places. Again, it brings us back that nuanced approach that we need to look at.
I will now bring in Ivan McKee.
Thanks for coming along this morning, Alison. Before I get into my questions, I want to touch on the workplace parking levy, which you mentioned. I just want to unpick that a wee bit in the context of the view that Government should let local authorities get on with stuff. I might be wrong, but I am pretty sure that it is an enabling piece of legislation that allows local authorities to do that. Are you making the point that we need more of that?
Okay. The discussion and narrative on whether that was a good or bad thing ended up being between the parties at Scottish Parliament level, rather than local authorities taking that forward. I just wanted to clarify that that was the point that you were making.
Yes. That is across all parties. Instead of the Scottish Parliament discussing the workplace parking levy, it should just have been done through a piece of enabling legislation. Everybody seemed to accept that they wanted more enabling legislation. It was then up to 32 local authorities to argue it out as to whether to introduce it. As I say, what is right in Glasgow is different to what is right in Moray.
Yes. Realpolitik gets in the way, unfortunately—that is life.
I will get into the substance of my question. You have opened up a debate on the system and structure, with Jack McConnell starting that off, very much in the space of whether the current boundaries in the structure are effective. I want to explore your thinking on that. You mentioned the interface between local government and health boards, but that opens up another question on whether the health board structure is correct, which is a whole other subject. Clearly, stuff can be done at the regional level, through either restructuring or local authorities co-operating with one another, but there is also what happens locally with community planning partnerships and community councils, on which the committee has taken evidence. Clearly, there is an issue about whether more can be done at a very local level.
What is your thinking on that? Is there a need for a multisphere system in local government, or can it be done using the existing structure, but with more flexibility in how things are done?
To give a bit of background on Reform Scotland’s devolving Scotland forum, we want to try to attract as wide a range of individuals as possible to think about these things, so there could possibly be conflicting ideas—we want to have those discussions and debates around what we should do.
As Jack McConnell mentioned in his opening piece, we have not really reviewed the boundaries and we have never really looked at what was done in 1993. Indeed, the original white paper called for 28 local authorities, and we ended up with 32. We have never really looked at whether those are the right boundaries, and we have never really considered why we went from two spheres to one sphere but then created all these differences, where some things are too local and some things are too big. There is so much in that.
As you say, enabling different areas to do things differently is key. Particularly in the central belt, we have the economic regional areas, and there are so many overlapping things when you are looking at economic development. However, in places such as the Highlands, where you have very rural areas and the city, how do you ensure that each voice is well represented? Equally, in places such as Aberdeenshire, you have rural areas but you still have the more urban areas. We are saying that we want to discuss that. We have not reviewed it, and it has not been looked at.
Thirty years have passed in which we have had constitutional reform involving the Scottish Parliament and we have left the European Union. A whole load of things have happened, but nothing has changed in local government. We need to look at whether we have the right boundaries and whether we could do things better. Could councils voluntarily come together? There was a discussion earlier about shared services. How can we encourage more things to be done through shared services? Equally, how can we ensure that things are done more locally?
As I said earlier, nobody in the discussions seems to think that 32 is the right number. Plenty of people think that it is too many, and plenty of people think that it is not enough. People have kind of said that, because nobody agrees, we will just stick with it, we will not review it and we will not consider whether things can be done differently. We are trying to encourage a debate on the issue, to tease out what could be done and enable people to take a step back so that we move away from discussions about postcode lotteries and begin to realise that it is about local accountability—there is difference there, but that has been driven by local accountability.
I am old enough to remember the politics of that period of reorganisation. I do not want to go into it too much, but it was perhaps done for reasons other than finding an optimal solution to local government boundaries. We might talk about that a wee bit more, so I do not want to jump too much into that space. There are tensions between what is done at a macro level, what is done at a micro level and what is a postcode lottery versus local control and how to navigate that.
There is a big question about whether people look at the situation and think, “Maybe it’s not the right answer but, frankly, the amount of work and cost involved in restructuring is potentially a bit scary,” so they back off. There is a question about how much can be done within the existing structure, but I think that we will pick that up later, so I will stop there, convener.
Good morning, Alison. It is really interesting to hear your views on a number of issues. What about the new deal? Will you give us some thoughts and reflections about what should be in there? Could you offer us a suggestion or two about how we get flexibility? How do we improve it so that local needs can properly be served while paying regard to the national structures and national directions that very much drive it? You are not alone in being asked that question—we have asked it in many committee meetings—but I would be obliged if you would give us some of your thoughts on it.11:00
It would be fantastic if the new deal began reflecting some of the reforms that have been set out in previous reports—such as the Christie report, local government committee reports or the “Blueprint for Local Government”—and explaining how we enable the prevention agenda to be developed. The key to that is finance. The drip feeding of little bits of finance will not work. We need to empower our local authorities so that they have the financial powers to look at what works for them. We cannot say, “Well, you have council tax, but we are going to cap it, and we are going to ring fence your budget. We are going to create an absolute headache and then expect you to deliver in the way that we say you must deliver.”
The starting point has to be partnership. Derek Mitchell, who has written a piece for the devolving Scotland forum today, said:
“We should seek symmetry of outcomes, not delivery.”
If we are starting from scratch and having a new deal for local government, we need to look at outcomes and not the delivery mechanism. It is about enabling councils to deliver in different ways to reflect local circumstances, to find what works in their area and to not be afraid of the fact that things will not always work. That is okay, because the only way that we will find out what works in different areas is by trying. What works in Dumfries and Galloway might not work in Moray. You cannot just say, “That works there, so we will roll it out.” It is about allowing local authorities to develop their own pilots and delivery mechanisms. For example, if we want to reduce homelessness and set that as the outcome, there will need to be 32 different approaches to delivery.
Certainly, the fiscal framework in the new deal is key and sets the tone. If you really trust the local authorities, you will give them the financial powers to begin the journey of looking towards raising 40 to 50 per cent of their revenue, encouraging growth and economic development in their area, and scaling deep in terms of entrepreneurialism. They can look at the issues that are more pressing in their areas, whether it is homelessness or a different education reform that they want to tackle.
The country is really diverse; it faces huge demographic challenges, but they vary hugely across the county. Edinburgh’s demographics will be okay, but Inverclyde’s are a huge problem. It is about enabling local authorities to address those issues. As with workplace parking, we need enabling legislation that allows local authorities to develop their own strategies, rather than having to keep coming cap in hand to ask for permission from the Scottish Government when they have thought of this or that.
That is fascinating. How locally should power be devolved? Take my constituency of Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley, where there are something like 16 towns or villages, including Kilmarnock. None of those towns or villages has any powers whatsoever. Should it go to that level? The only structure that I can think of is the community councils, which basically represent small towns and villages but have very little power. Are you talking about an agenda that breathes new life into that and gives new power at the town and village level?
Definitely, but it could be done differently in different areas. In somewhere such as Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley, which has different villages, developing the community council system might be more appropriate than it would be in other areas. In some areas, community councils are very active, hold regular elections, are well understood and have good participation. In other areas, not only do they not have elections but there are not enough people standing or wanting to get involved. There is something to be done on how to generate that interest and ensure that people understand what is going on in that very local sphere. Quite often, a local issue in a small area will kick off such interest, but it can be done in an asymmetric way. The growth in somewhere such as Kilmarnock might work, whereas, in other areas, there is less interest, but that is okay. That is the way to look at it.
There have been attempts in the past to fully devolve non-domestic rates and council tax to local authorities, but they never came to fruition. I was part of a review—I think it was two sessions of Parliament ago—that looked at replacing council tax, but that just did not happen. We could not get agreement round the table on a model that might work. How realistic is that? Is it too complex? Is it beyond us, or should we keep working at it?
We need to keep working at it. It is a bit like the number of local authorities; we have that number only because we do not want to deal with a difficult decision. We still have council tax, and it is still based on 1994 house values. There are so many issues and problems with that. As you said, going way back, there were discussions about local income tax. However, there is an issue with replacing one centrally imposed local tax with another one that does not really suit anybody. That is why we would like local authorities to have the ability to set their own local tax, so that one local authority could keep a council tax while another could decide to develop a land value tax. That would result in a system that works for the local area. If those powers were fully devolved to local authorities and they had full control, you would not end up having the introduction of things such as council tax caps and all of the issues with those at the different times that they have been done.
It is about giving that full responsibility to the local authorities. You might end up with 32 headaches, but you might end up with some starting to develop their own system. It is a slow and gradual process, but others will take up that opportunity and say, “Right, this doesn’t work for our area. The Highland Council is going to look at a land value tax, and it’s going to work.” They will then start to do that, and we will begin to see reform, with councils learning from one another. A council might say, “Well, that worked for them. It might not work for us, but we could look at what’s happening elsewhere.” That variation is important.
You talked about the 32 councils. I want to pin you down on that. Does Reform Scotland think that the number should be higher or lower? How do we get the transformational change that you are talking about? Can we get it in that 32-council structure, or is fundamental change needed to deliver it?
We can get transformational change, although it cannot be delivered tomorrow; it will take more than one election cycle. That is key for the preventative agenda and implementing the Christie recommendations.
On the size and structure of local authorities, Reform Scotland has often argued over the years that it would like more powers to be devolved. Before the police forces were merged, we wanted policing powers to be devolved to local authorities, but the response was, “You can’t do that with 32.” At one point, we suggested in a report that, if we had 19 authorities, we could have coterminous boundaries with police and healthcare authorities. You could look at a whole load of strategic areas and work on that basis.
That goes back to the question of where the right sphere is. We need the Boundary Commission for Scotland to get involved and we need more of an investigation into the powers that we want and how we are going to manage that. As was alluded to, the 1993 settlement was largely down to politics. There was a discussion about why the boundaries were drawn and the reasons behind them. It is even more ludicrous that, despite those reasons for creating the boundaries, we still have them, 30 years later. Why do we have a very small Clackmannanshire Council and a huge Highland Council? Why do we have Dumfries and Galloway Council and Fife Council? Why do we have some massive areas and some very small ones? Why do we have Angus Council and Dundee City Council?
It is about involving the Boundary Commission and considering what powers we want and where we want powers to settle. Could we look at bringing healthcare powers into our local authorities? Instead of having health boards and local authorities, could we bring those things together?
We need to start by asking what powers you want to have and then what the best way of implementing them is. A Boundary Commission review could consider whether we properly looked at why we had two tiers of authority prior to 1994, and the reasons why we went to unitary authorities. Are there certain things that we would rather have at a higher level and some that we would rather have at a lower level? Do we want two tiers of local government again, or some elements of that? That creates other problems because, we are trying to attract councillors and want to pay them more, but we would be creating more councillors.
It is about having those discussions, involving the public in them and considering how they view their local authority and what they want. What do they identify as being their local authority area? East Lothian is quite small, but it has various bits such as Haddington and North Berwick that are individual communities and that do not really join in; rather, the boundary has just been set there.
It is about having that conversation. Part of what we want to do with the devolving Scotland forum is to tease out such discussions, to have more of a public hearing and to get the ball rolling so that we can move to actually reforming what we have.
So was that an argument for 19, then?
That would depend. There are an awful lot of powers that we want to be devolved. We almost start from the position that a power should be devolved unless there is a reason for it to be reserved to Holyrood. I favour, as we at Reform Scotland have certainly favoured, a larger number of smaller local authorities. We gave the figure of 19 as an example of one way in which to do it. If you think that 32 is too many or that more than 32 is too many, that is another way of doing it, whereby we could get rid of health board boundaries. We have never said that 19 is the ideal number.
The number itself does not matter; rather, it is about the reason behind that number. It is about whether authorities are too big or too small and whether there is too much power or not enough power. That is the dynamic and the argument here, is it not? Somewhere in there, there is an argument about how we localise power to the greatest effect to benefit the communities that we serve and all of that. That is why I mentioned the village and town level in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley. There is no power whatsoever in any of those units. It will be the same in all members’ constituencies—none of the towns and villages has any power whatsoever. Local authorities act as an authority over just about everything that they do.
Thank you very much for your comments, which are much appreciated.
Before I bring in Miles Briggs to add another layer of complexity with his questions, I want to pick up on a few things. One thing that struck me while you were talking—you mentioned this at the beginning, and it was also mentioned in the committee’s previous evidence session—was the fact that, in the EU, local municipalities can raise 40 to 50 per cent of their revenue at a local level. You painted a picture of a Scotland with a lot of diversity. Is there that level of nuance in other countries, such as France? I realise that I have quite a fixed picture of that situation, whether that is of 250 people with a mayor or whatever. Is it quite diverse, depending on the geography and local issues?
Yes. There are quite a lot of differences. In Spain, for example, there are the autonomous communities, there is what sits below them and there is the asymmetric devolution of powers. There are differences. It has always been the case, particularly in France, that there have been very low-level local mayors.
Moreover, in certain areas, there are elections for a lot of public office positions. That is the norm—it is just expected. Among the Scandinavian countries, some have smaller levels, some have shrunk the number of local authorities and some have increased the number. It is about what has worked for those areas.
Again, geography can come into play. That is the thing with Scotland—we are not looking at an area where it can easily be the same throughout, as a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. As you mentioned earlier with regard to the islands, very different solutions can be brought to bear. We do not need to find a solution whereby we work in exactly the same way across the country. We need to be more nuanced in developing solutions. It therefore might be really local in one area and more strategic in another, depending on whether that is right for the area and the population. It is about how people identify. If people identify as being from Glasgow or from a small village in Kilmarnock, that identification is also an important part to bring into it.11:15
You are bringing in an element of belonging, in a way.
I was interested to hear from Jackie Weaver, when she came to our session a few weeks ago, that community councils in England are incorporated and they have revenue-raising powers, which ours do not. That takes me back to the conversation about remuneration. How do we engage more people? What would be the incentive for people to come to a community council?
It seems to me that having some power to do something could attract thoughtful people who want to participate in shaping the place to which they belong and with which they identify. The same remuneration piece applies at the council level. We would attract people who have the right skill sets. We already attract such people, but they take a massive cut and struggle financially. As you said, they tend to do one term and then have to move on. That is a shame, because the tremendous amount of experience that they have gained over the five-year period goes out the door again.
Undoubtedly. Ensuring representation on community councils is vital. There is a danger that, in some areas, we end up not having elections and the community councils tend to be managed by people who are retired or who have more time on their hands, and they are not necessarily representative of the community. It may be that it is only when an issue creeps up on which there is divergence between local opinion and the opinion of the community council that there is more interest. That creates another layer of problems.
However, given the cost of living crisis, all the other issues that we have had about money and the fact that we have so many spheres of government, to keep increasing remuneration for increasing numbers of politicians is not going to be a popular policy.
Last week, we had a useful meeting with our counterpart committee in Wales. The members told us that, in Wales, there are four corporate joint committees that have a regional approach. They said that we should not adopt that approach too quickly, but it is interesting that, even though Wales is smaller, they have a regional approach for some aspects of decision making.
It comes down to what needs to be decided at a higher level and what needs to be decided more locally. Starting to decide what the decision-making domain is takes me back to the clarity that was called for at our new deal event with the futures forum. There were calls for clarity about which decisions should be made locally, with a more nuanced approach, and which things it makes sense to do at a higher level because we need a regional approach—roads are an example.
The problem at the moment is that we do not really have anything down at the local or very local level. Everything is centralised. We need to shift from that. We need to have a lot of discussions and decisions about how far down we should go and how local is local, but we need to shift from everything being centralised. In order to address the cost of living crisis, the demographic challenges and all the things that are coming down the line, and to shift to the preventative agenda, we first have to deal with the fact that everything is centralised.
The new deal is the opportunity to address that and say, “We’re taking our hands off: we’re shifting from giving you money but ring fencing it and telling you how you have to deliver central Government’s priorities”. We have to shift to saying, “These are the outcomes that we want.” In the same way that central Government needs to release its hands, it will then be up to local authorities to ask what it is appropriate for them to do and what they can devolve further. At the moment, local authorities cannot devolve anything until it has been devolved from the centre.
Something that I always come back to is how we get more people to engage with community councils. I made a note that says, “How local is local?” We need to have that conversation, and we may talk about that in the committee. Having a universal basic income is not necessarily an ideal approach, but I wonder whether it would be a way to get more diversity at the very local level on our community councils, because people would have some foundational income to enable them to serve their community.
Absolutely. Reform Scotland has published on a universal basic income. We have argued about that and set out the issues. It is certainly expensive, but we have recommended that it should be considered. All welfare powers have been devolved to Northern Ireland, so there is no reason why they could not be devolved to Scotland, which would give us more opportunities. With the powers that rest in Scotland at the moment, we found that, although the idea could perhaps be piloted in partnership with the UK Government, it would be difficult to do it on a Scottish basis alone. If all welfare powers were devolved, there would be opportunities to develop such things.
At the community council level, it is not just about the money; it is also about the time constraints. We want to get a diverse selection of people in at that level, but people will also be working and have caring responsibilities. Even with a basic income, it is about how we ensure that we get a diverse selection of people. One thing has changed recently in some councils. Council meetings used to happen in the evenings, which removed a lot of people from being able to participate. Community council meetings tend to be in the evening, which is a barrier. It is about looking at the time element as well, and not just the financial issues.
It is really important to point that out. It is helpful to hear that there may be a need for some powers that have already been devolved elsewhere to come to Scotland to help us with that.
Good morning, Ali, and thanks for joining us today. I want to discuss the introduction of another set of politicians—elected mayors and provosts. We have touched on that, but I would like to hear more of your thoughts on it. Is there evidence of elected mayors increasing accountability, improving community engagement and delivering better outcomes for people? What are your thoughts on that? What has Reform Scotland said about the suggestion?
We use the phrase “directly elected mayors” simply to distinguish them from the largely ceremonial provosts that we have. As you say, provosts and mayors can be interchangeable. It is about the person who is in charge in an area having a clear identity. The model that we suggest in our report involves using existing council boundaries and having somebody who is directly elected across the council area. It is not really the same system as the one in various places down south, where, for example, Andy Burnham covers the larger Manchester area.
It is about having somebody whose identity is understood and who can be a representative voice and an ambassador for their area locally, nationally across the UK and internationally, whether they represent Edinburgh or Moray, which might not always have the loudest voice because it is drowned out by the central belt. It is about paying a bit more attention to areas that are perhaps overlooked at present.
It is also about connecting individuals. At the moment, most local authorities are run by coalitions and there is not always great understanding of who is in charge. Some councils have had two leaders to reflect the nature of the coalition partners. There is not always great name recognition of council leaders. Of course, a councillor is elected to represent just one ward and they will not necessarily have a link to the full area.
Part of our thinking was about ensuring a move towards the parity that we spoke about earlier. How do we raise the profile and increase the understanding of the voice of local authorities? The structures might be different down south but, with the likes of Andy Burnham, we have seen that name recognition and the idea of people fighting for their area. People such as Sadiq Khan are voices for their areas against a stronger central Government. We are trying to increase the voice of civic Scotland, increase the voices that are out there and have identifiable individuals who can argue for their areas.
During the pandemic, when people could only move within their local authority area, there was a better understanding of which local authority was at which level for the Covid restrictions. At that point, we saw some arguments going on about whether local authorities were sticking up for their areas or whether they were just going along with their national party.
The key is that a directly elected mayor or provost is the people’s voice and a strong local champion, rather than a party’s voice for the people or the party’s voice in Glasgow, Edinburgh or wherever. If someone from whichever party just spouts party lines and sticks rigidly to what their party is saying, they will get kicked out—voted out—by the electorate. It is about building that link with what is right locally.
We have not always seen disagreement between local authorities and the central parties, but we should have that discussion more, because it is surely obvious that what is right in one local area may not be what a party leader wants to see. Some discussions have gone on about coalitions at the local authority level. We have had one party saying, “Oh, you can’t go into coalition with this party” and another saying, “Oh, you can’t go into coalition with that party”, but we have a voting system that is designed to encourage coalitions. That is what happens when the politics come into play. The proposal is a way of stripping the politics back a wee bit and giving a voice to the local authority area.
Which powers would you centralise to elected mayors, provosts or civic leaders? This is a leading question, but something that has not been well managed is deciding who is responsible for delivery of the city growth deals that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and collections of councils have signed up to. We have had big bang moments and big numbers for those, but we have key infrastructure projects such as the Sheriffhall roundabout, which is not far from here, progressing at a snail’s pace. That is a huge key project for the Lothian region, but no one is the lead minister or lead politician for it. Do you envisage powers over, say, economic development, health or policing sitting with the individual?
It would definitely include powers over health and policing. That would involve reforming the centralisation of the police, but there should be more powers and they would be passed down. We envisage that there would still be councils, which would hold the directly elected mayors to account, but they would have the powers that they currently have plus the enhanced powers that we have spoken about.
There are issues that cover more than one council area, such as the Sheriffhall roundabout. That is an example of an issue that involves different spheres of government and it is not clear where accountability lies, who is to blame or what is happening. However, that could be slightly separate from the mayors issue because, unless there was a different boundary, we could still have three mayors involved and it may not be clear who was responsible for delivery.
Perhaps that needs to be looked at with the city growth deals to determine who is responsible, where responsibility lies and who the public can hold to account. Is it the UK Government, the Scottish Government or the local authority? That is not clear. Clarity requires politicians to say, “This is the responsibility. We’ll back off, but we will hold you to account.”
Would it improve the relationship between local and central Government to have that additional tier or would it mean that we just created another voice for the areas in people who, let us face it, will be elected by a party that is either in government or not? Political cycles might dictate who has the roles. Might we see mayors who will, as with Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan, happily take on the UK Government? We would maybe have Conservatives elected, who would take on the Scottish Government at this point. It is quite easy to have a dissenting voice if you are not in the Government of the day, because you will not necessarily be progressing an agenda.
There have also been Conservative mayors who have taken on the UK Government. That is an example of what we need more of. It was really good to see the discussion between Adam McVey, the former leader of the City of Edinburgh Council, and the Scottish Government on the tourism levy. We should be having more of those discussions. Where it is clear that there is a “local versus national” debate, there should be disagreement and that public discourse.
I do not see the mayors as an additional tier of government. It is simply about looking at the structure of the existing councils and how we give them greater voice so that they can have more parity and equality with the Scottish Government.11:30
I go back to one of the other recommendations that we made, which is quarterly meetings. If we have mayors for everywhere, those meetings could be between the mayors and the Scottish Government. They could alternate between involving the First Minister and ministers with different responsibilities. The participants would actually talk about, discuss and debate the various issues with delivery of the national objectives. The Scottish Government would say, “We want you to deliver X; how are you going to do that?” That would enable the differences to be discussed and people to learn from one other. We would have a platform where people could hear the different voices, including those of the 32 local champions.
I want there to be that difference. Obviously, a Conservative mayor will find it very easy to disagree with an SNP Scottish Government, but the key bit is where there are disagreements within the same party. That happens, but it should happen more regularly.
Finally, to go back to Willie Coffey’s question about council numbers, let us consider having 32 elected mayors and the amount of resource that an elected mayor of Edinburgh, for example, would potentially have compared with an elected mayor of Clackmannanshire. The voice of those mayors, in the cities, would work well in driving real economic opportunity and promoting an area. However, where did the idea of having 32 mayors come from? Should we look at where we operate more regionally—such as with Holyrood’s Lothian region—with individual councils coming together? People could get lost if there were 32 voices instead of eight.
That would be adding a different tier of government. You would potentially be looking at two tiers of local government. West Lothian often gets overlooked in discussions, because Edinburgh is the focus. How do you increase the voice and the recognition of the issues that affect places such as Midlothian and West Lothian, which are swept up into the Edinburgh economic area? If you have one person representing the larger areas, Glasgow and Edinburgh remain the focus. The big cities remain the focus, and the hinterlands still do not have their voice.
We have the councils, so we are saying, “How can we amplify their voice? How can we make sure that there is a local champion for Livingston and West Lothian, so that the issues faced in those places, which will be different from those in Edinburgh, are not overlooked?”. Part of the issue is that, if you make it about just the big cities, the focus will be the big cities. We know that there are a whole load of issues, including housing, in the other areas. How do we amplify those discussions?
We have a figure of 32 at the moment, and we are working with that. I go back to the previous discussions about whether we need the Boundary Commission for Scotland to look at whether it is appropriate that our starting point is something that was, allegedly, done to ensure that the Conservatives could hold on to some councils in 1993. It seems a bit strange that, in 2023, we are still sitting with that as our starting point. Certainly, we felt that the mayors would not be an additional tier of government but would work with the councils.
Thank you. It is an area where a lot more discussion will happen across parties.
Thanks for that. That was a very interesting discussion. I now have a greater understanding of your thinking behind that.
I want to ask about the ability of the Government and the Parliament to deliver a new local government settlement or landscape. We have talked about, essentially, a public acceptance that the system that we have now is the result of political gerrymandering 30 years ago, and one wonders how such a system can have lasted for 30 years. First, it is because nobody agrees what should replace it. Secondly, it is because there is an inbuilt resistance. You have 32 leaders, 32 chief execs, finance directors and education directors who will be thinking, “If there is a change here, will there be a space for me?”. There is also the political make-up of the Parliament. In the entire history of the Parliament, we have had minority or very small majority Governments with limited political capital looking at an item that is probably not very high up the public’s priority list. With all of that in mind, can the Parliament and the Government ever deliver the change that we all probably agree, in principle if perhaps not at the detailed level, that we should be pushing for?
I hope so. In our submission, we point to the Local Government Committee of 2002 and the Local Government and Regeneration Committee of 2014, at which a lot of those issues were raised and calls for change were made. Yes, it is difficult, and it can seem like it is not a priority, but I think that it is seen as not being a priority because it is not linked to change. If we empower local authorities, they can be the vehicle that delivers the better outcomes for our people. They are where the empowerment agenda that the Christie commission set out can happen. If we want to deliver on Christie, which is still being talked about, we need local government reform to enable it.
Cross-party agreement is perhaps required to accept that the current situation does not work and that we need to move forward. The issue is politically contentious, and that requires the Government to set up a commission slightly outside of Parliament, which can go beyond an electoral cycle, and we need buy-in from the different parties. If everybody accepts that the current situation is unsustainable, it surely is not beyond the wit of politicians and civic Scotland to fix it. There has to be that buy-in, and it has to be said that we will have a commission that looks at the matter and we will work out an agreement, perhaps modelled around something like the Smith commission, where people with different agendas came out with some sort of solution. That can be the way forward.
It is really important. Our local authorities are the ones that can deliver the change that we require. Constantly delivering one-size-fits-all positions from the centre has not worked, so it is incumbent on all of us to try to fix that, move forward and change, and explain to people why doing that is important. Talking about more councillors or councillors’ wages seems very detached from improving the cost of living crisis. However, if we enable and empower our local authorities to deliver the early interventions that we need, to look into the longer-term solutions, so that they are not working on one-year budgets, and to take on all the challenges that we face, I would like to think that they can do that.
Thanks very much, Mark. That was interesting. Thanks for that positive response, Alison.
I want to pick up on one piece. You talked about coterminous boundaries. At the end of June, we will be going to Orkney, which is a single-island authority. Have you looked at what is going on there? We heard from Councillor Heddle at one point that that council has given budgets to its community councils on the surrounding islands so that they can make decisions at a local level with some financial backing.
We have not looked specifically at Orkney, but, with regards to coterminous boundaries, that is exactly the sort of thing that could be piloted. Instead of having Orkney Islands Council and NHS Orkney, could we bring them together and pilot bringing more powers into different areas? It would make sense to give the islands a lot more powers—they have certainly been calling out for them—and to pilot certain things. If it is politically difficult to change things, the islands and other areas, such as Fife and Dumfries and Galloway, where you have coterminous boundaries are an opportunity to pilot and to experiment. Rather than there being a big bang change, something can be tried in those areas first.
So there could be gradual reform rather than everything being ripped up.
If that is what it takes.
The Scottish Land Commission recently published a report, which you may have seen, about forms of tax on land. It did not necessarily suggest a land value tax, but it had different kinds of ideas on tax on land.
One of the things that was flagged up to me was the fact that, in Fife, Amazon has its regional delivery centre, where its stuff gets sent out not only around Scotland but to the north of England. Amazon pays, I think, £1 million in non-domestic rates, and the neighbouring Tesco pays £2 million. Amazon generates tremendous income but is not really paying for it. I am interested in exploring those things, and, as a committee, we will look at that issue and how to generate more income for local authorities. Have you looked at that?
That is not something that we have looked at. We have certainly costed some ideas about annual ground rents and other types of land value tax. What works in one area may not work in another area, so it is about allowing a more nuanced system to develop.
It is interesting to encourage different ideas. How do we ensure that things are competitive and fair? There are issues with land banking and other things that can stifle development in an area. If you were to reform the taxation system, are there things that you could do there? Again, it is about giving local authorities the power to develop those systems for themselves.
Thanks for that. It is really helpful.
It has been a really useful session, and we could go on a bit longer—I have certainly got more questions—but I have put a big box around my note “How local is local?”. Perhaps that is another part of the conversation if we want to take a more local approach, be that through 19 or 32 local authorities. That might have been discussed in some of the reports of the 2002 or 2014 local government committees, which you have referred to. It seems to be another piece of the conversation about what we want to devolve to more local levels, and that is important as we face a climate and nature emergency. Communities will face very different sets of issues—flooding, wildfires or whatever—and a pandemic-level speed of response to those issues will be needed. What is the local level at which power is needed in order to do that quickly?
That kind of opens something else up, but I will not go there.
Thank you so much, Alison, for joining us. It has been tremendously helpful. We agreed at the start of the meeting to take the next items on the agenda in private, so, as that was the last public item today, I now close the public part of the meeting.11:42 Meeting continued in private until 11:59.