Local democracy – past, present and future – Colin Mair.
Colin Mair certainly knows how to make a dramatic entrance. After John Walls started conducting Club business in the absence of the planned speaker, he quietly stepped through the hall door at 10:35 am. He had been delayed by an accident induced traffic jam on the M8. Unfazed Colin launched into his talk on local democracy without hesitation.
What emerged is that Scotland, relative to other countries, is locally governed by a very small number of very large councils. Indeed the Canary Islands have more local authorities than Scotland. The councils also have very limited fiscal powers as 80% of funds come from central government. Tellingly the government of the day can change the arrangements at the whim of parliament as they have no constitutional protection nor right to exist.
For Colin the puzzle was how did Scotland move from over 200 councils and 50% local taxation in 1974 to 32 Councils and 20% local taxation in 1996? Nobody was asked whether they wanted the change. It was argued for in the name of economies of scale and efficiency. (Later discussion raised the spectre of a political justification – jings, crivvens and help ma boab, surely not!)
In Colin’s view these factors contribute to the low electoral turnouts in Scotland. Typical Council elections have a turnout of about 39% but 70% in Norway where they have 19 counties and 434 municipalities. He also noted past local authority functions had now become national such as water, public health, police and fire services. Thus they were no longer locally accountable.
The discussion moved on to the challenges facing local democracy; ie taxation, demographic change and public expectations. In particular, he focused on the aging population. Over the next 25 years the population over 75 and 85 is going to increase by 85% and 131% respectively. This change is not uniform around Scotland. For instance, in Glasgow, older people are only projected to increase by 66% but in East Dunbartonshire by 201%. This is important because of the public’s expectation for free personal care. This is unsustainable on the basis of existing resource levels. So it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
In terms of the way ahead, current thinking is that local services should be de-cluttered and localized into about 80 to 100 local authorities. They should have general competence and fiscal sufficiency to do as they see fit for their own localities. Nonetheless some services would have to remain non-local and function at a regional or national level because of their specialist nature and the skills involved. Moreover, things like payrolls, could and should be easily and efficiently handled at a national level.
So everyone got interesting new insights to the challenges of local democracy. In terms of the way ahead, as Fred Hay observed at the end of the EU discussion in May, the issues take on a spiritual quality.