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Scottish Politics

Second edition

by Paul Cairney

Update 1B: Local Government – The Post-Devolution Experience

Neil McGarvey, Lecturer in Politics, University of Strathclyde - n.mcgarvey@strath.ac.uk

Ten years of devolution represents an appropriate juncture to assess its impact on local government. Back in 1999, despite COSLA being key players in the campaign for home rule, there were many in Scottish local government wary about that the introduction of the devolution. There were fears that the Scottish Parliament and the subsequent re-invigoration and enhanced democratic legitimacy (remember the Conservative run Scottish Office?) of the executive branch of central government could result in a new period of centralisation in Scottish governing structures. The 1998 Scotland Act devolving all legislative competence for the functions of powers of local government to the Scottish Parliament. The possibility existed that it, in search of a role, it could suck up powers, reorganise or remove functions from localities and become something akin to a ‘super’ council.

However, despite these fears COSLA was at the vanguard of the Scottish home rule movement in the 1980s and 90s. COSLA, like other political interests in Scotland, viewed the Parliament as a safeguard and shield against any future right of centre UK Government. The defensive struggle against alien UK Conservative Government market orientated policies in the 1980s and 90s had convinced many in Scottish local government that devolution was desirable.

To assuage any fears those in local government had the Scottish Office commissioned Neil McIntosh to examine the potential relationship between local government and the new Parliament. His committee’s report suggested, ‘The arrival of the Scottish Parliament represents a fundamental change in the political landscape within which Scottish councils in future will operate’. This Report was the subject of the very first debate in the new Parliament on the 1st July 1999. Many of the subsequent changes that have taken place can be traced back to it.

It led to an agenda of change incorporating formal partnership protocols between COSLA and the Scottish Parliament and Government, new internal political management structures in local councils, the Improvement Service, an enhanced remuneration and status for the councillor role and the introduction of the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system for local elections.

The pre-devolution bipartite relations between COSLA and the Scottish Office have been replaced with a new tri-partite structure involving COSLA, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. The original concordat contained a commitment, on the part of the then Scottish Executive, to consult COSLA and, where appropriate, individual councils, on ‘all proposals which affect or might affect the structure, role and functions and financing of Local Government.’ However, there have been notable occasions when this has not been followed through e.g. the Labour/Lib Dem coalition agreement to reform the electoral system, and the proposals to establish a Scottish Strategic Transport Authority, a Single Correctional Agency and extend ministerial powers to deal with failing schools.

Neither, as recommended by McIntosh, has a power of general competence been conferred on local authorities who do, however, have the power to promote or improve the well-being within the area of a local authority under the terms of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 2003. However, this Act also allows ministers the power to use preliminary notices and enforcement directions to police the power of well-being. Local councils remain as susceptible to encroachment on their functions as they did pre-devolution. That said, the Scottish Government has, to date, shown little appetite to do so.

For example, the MacNish Report on political management structures was non prescriptive in tone. The then Scottish Executive allowed some councils to retain traditional committee structures whilst others went down the route of formalising the political leadership as an executive.

Since 1999 the recruitment base of councillors has not been significantly broadened. The Kerley Report’s recommendations on widening access, remuneration of councillors and changes to the electoral system impacted on the demographic of members. Pre-devolution the dominant councillor caricature was that ‘he’ (as they usually were) was usually white, middle class and middle aged. That largely remains the case. In 2007 the average age of elected councillors was still 52, and only 21% were female – this compares unfavourably to the Scottish Parliament.

The introduction of STV for the 2007 local elections is undoubtedly the most significant post-devolution development. It, together with changing voting patterns, has meant that one party (usually Labour) councils in the central-belt have been transformed. Today, there are a multitude of party political administrative configurations at the local level – seventeen at the last count. STV has ended the mis-match between voting patterns and council composition – party politics in council chambers is now much more pluralist in character.

However, STV has not solved the problem of the low visibility of councils. In comparative terms the external visibility of leadership in Scottish local councils remains faint. In Scotland few (if any) council leaders are widely recognised beyond their council chambers. That said, there is little support amongst Scottish councillors for a replication of the English elected mayor model.

If anything devolution has accentuated the ‘invisibility’ of Scottish local government at a national level. Media outlets have their spotlight firmly focused on Holyrood with local authorities rarely gaining attention. Prior to 1999 COSLA and Scottish local authorities could legitimately claim to be the only authentic voice of democratic Scotland. That is no longer the case. The Parliament is now the dominant institution of democratic politics in Scotland - one need only reflect on the coverage of the parliamentary and local elections to be aware of the comparative esteem of each in media circles. The Scottish Government and Parliament have overshadowed local councils since 1999.

In policy terms, devolution has accentuated the divide with the rest of the UK. In Scotland there was little appetite for the Blairite local government modernization drive. It did not have the same political thrust in Edinburgh as it did in London. The UK Government’s approach has been far more prescriptive and interventionist than that emerging from Edinburgh.

The propinquity of COSLA, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament has meant almost continuous dialogue with ongoing interpersonal interaction the norm. Interactive mechanisms established by concordats result in a stream of conferences, seminars, partnerships, workshops, forums where ministerial, parliamentary, civil service, local councillor and officers in the central-local relationship meet in an almost continuous basis. Parliamentary committees provide a direct channel for MSPs to deliberate and debate local government matters.

COSLA, the umbrella group, had a rocky start to devolution when the resignation of three councils (Glasgow, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire) led to cutbacks. However, they are now back under the COSLA umbrella. Post-1999 COSLA has been faced with a dilemma of whether local government is best represented by remaining detached from central policymakers in order that it could retain its independence to criticize government policy (as it tended to do during the 1979-1997 Conservative years in the Scottish Office), or build its insider status and develop policymaking relations with the Executive branch of government in Scotland. Since the pre-devolution days it has gradually moved from being the vanguard of opposition to mature into playing a more constructive role in policymaking.

It has had to, in response to the growing volume of legislation emerging from the Scottish Parliament. It, of course, has not always responded positively to perceived incremental and creeping centralisation with new requirements, directives, ring-fenced budgets, regulatory regimes and other such devices reducing the autonomy of local authorities. The issue of local tax and financing remains high on the agenda. It is likely to remain so, while grant allocations from central government still make up the vast bulk of councils’ budgets.

In terms of policy, both central and local government share priorities as regards issues such as social inclusion, child poverty, health improvement and anti-social behaviour. Single Outcome Agreements (SOAs) are a new stage in the never-ending quest for ‘joined-up’ co-ordinated government in Scotland.

Overall, despite concordats, talk of partnership and the close proximity of COSLA and the then Scottish Executive pre-2007 survey evidence tended to show that a majority of councilors agreed with the suggestion that devolution had increased central government control of councils. That, despite the fact, that there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest that the either the Scottish Executive or Parliament had wilfully and deliberately ‘sucked up’ powers from local government. Indeed the devolution White Paper explicitly stated that the UK Government did not envisage the Scottish Parliament taking powers from local authorities. It largely hasn’t. However, it has conferred new inspection and regulatory powers onto Scottish Government.

The post-devolution story of the central-local government relation is one of evolution rather than revolution. Changes have taken place but whether they have revitalised local democratic processes is a moot point. Local elections and local councils still tend to engender the same apathy and lack of enthusiasm among the general population they did in 1999. However, that may be just as much about disengagement and cynicism with political processes.

To date the Scottish Parliament has not altered the conventional paradigm of UK central-local relations. The constitutional position remains one of subordination. However, the political relationship is more complex and interdependent and the 2007 abolition of much of the ring-fencing of local authority funding represents a symbolic signal of a changed Scottish Government approach.

That said, the horizon looks rather grey and cloudy. The financial climate in the first few years of the 21st century has been rather benign, in the next few years the story is likely to be one of fiscal restraint or even retrenchment - the central-local relationship is likely to come under increasing strain.


Neil McGarvey is a Lecturer on Politics in the University of Strathclyde. He has published widely on local government and just published a new book (with Paul Cairney) Scottish Politics: an introduction (Palgrave, 2008).


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