When I became Secretary of State for Scotland in May, I set myself the challenge of getting around all 32 of Scotland’s local authority areas before Christmas, to meet with the leaders of the councils and their chief executives.
Local government is a crucial part of our civic structure in Scotland, and one which is too often over-looked.
Now, a couple of them have not quite made it under the wire, so I will have wait until the New Year to complete the set, but I have succeeded in meeting 28 councils, spanning the length and breadth of Scotland.
I’ve seen councils big and small, urban and rural, suburban and island. Of course they have differed hugely, and the variety has been vast.
But I found a common thread has emerged in nearly every council I have visited: a strong desire for greater devolution within Scotland.
Not from Westminster to Holyrood – though most councillors I have spoken to are fully supportive of the new powers coming to Scotland in the Scotland Bill – but from Holyrood, to local communities.
This was a message which Lord Smith of Kelvin heard loud and clear as he engaged with thousands of stakeholders from across Scotland, during the work of the Smith Commission.
It prompted him to make one of his personal recommendations in the Smith Commission Agreement.
There is a strong desire to see the principle of devolution extended further, with the transfer of powers from Holyrood to local communities…The Scottish Government should work with the Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to set out ways in which local areas can benefit from the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
Here in Glasgow, successive leaders of the City Council have been clear that they need more powers from Holyrood – not from Westminster – to give them the tools they need to let Glasgow flourish.
As Councillor Frank McAveety has said:
Glasgow is the powerhouse of the Scottish economy and should be given the power to decide more things locally…Merely transferring powers between one parliament and another does not advance the cities agenda.
The approach that Lord Smith and others advocate has been one of the defining policies of the UK Government in Westminster, and rightly so.
Over many years the United Kingdom, and Scotland particularly, has become one of the most centralised nations on earth.
Under the Coalition, progress was made to address this.
So far, 28 City Deals have been brokered between the UK Government, town halls, universities and businesses, to push power out of London and into communities across our country. And more of these are coming.
The Chancellor has made building the Northern Powerhouse – connecting the great cities of the North of England, so they can become more than the sum of their parts and can truly take on the world – one of his chief personal priorities.
The leaders of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield – none of them Conservatives – have found willing partners in the Chancellor, in the Prime Minister and in my cabinet colleague Greg Clark, the UK Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in the task of freeing them from central control and giving them the powers they need to make their areas prosper.
The message I have received as I have gone around Scotland and engaged with the leaders of our great cities, towns and communities has been that they have not yet had such a willing partner in the Scottish Government.
Whereas in England the direction of travel has been power and responsibility being willingly passed from ministers and civil servants to councillors in local communities, in Scotland that direction has been reversed.
Policing is a case in point. Eight local police forces – in, of and for the local areas they served – have been centralised into a single Police Scotland.
All power over policing invested in a single chief constable and all scrutiny and accountability the responsibility of a single, Scottish Government-appointed panel.
The claim is that this is more efficient, but compare the Scottish Government’s approach with the UK Government’s.
Theresa May has presided over considerable and necessary reductions in police budgets, without losing the 43 local police forces of England and Wales.
Instead, she has supported them to improve their performance and efficiency by sharing back-office functions, but keeping their local identities. And crime has continued to fall.
Instead of reducing the public accountability of policing, as the Scottish Government has done, she has transformed it, with the creation of locally elected Police and Crime Commissioners, who are democratically accountable to the people the police serve.
So my case today is that the issue of devolution to local communities is now an urgent one for Scotland.
There is a revolution going on in local government across the rest of the United Kingdom, with local areas regaining power and responsibility at an unprecedented rate.
Scotland cannot afford to be left behind as the rest of the UK revolutionises how it governs itself, giving towns, cities and counties more of the autonomy which our international competitors enjoy.
It’s time we had a proper debate about devolution within Scotland.
We don’t have time to delay – the debate needs to start now and it needs to be front and centre of the Scottish election campaign next year.
This is a good time to start that debate, in the week following a Scottish Budget which put local government in the spotlight.
The choices which the Scottish Government have made are significant.
Serious cuts to local authority budgets, and absolutely no new powers to raise their own funding.
In fact the reverse – with the Council Tax freeze retained for a ninth consecutive year.
Councils across Scotland are rightly concerned about the futures they face and it is about time we had an honest and frank debate about it.
More power to our great cities
And there’s no better place to make the case for more power and responsibility for local communities in Scotland than right here in the magnificent Glasgow City Chambers.
The fact that this building is bigger and grander than many nations’ parliaments is testament to the power and prestige which local government in Scotland once enjoyed.
It is befitting of Scotland’s largest city and the fifth largest metro-area in the United Kingdom, after London, Birmingham, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.
Glasgow’s interests are national and international and her ambitions are rightly global.
Her peers and competitors are places like Milan, Melbourne and Barcelona.
Global cities like these have powerful city governments.
But Glasgow, which can hold its own internationally in so many fields, be it cultural, architectural or commercial, cannot be said to enjoy a globally-powerful system of governance.
When considering Scottish local government in the light of international comparisons, a few things stand out:
First: Scotland’s local government is highly uniform: Scottish councils operate on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model which does not take account of the variety that exists in Scottish communities.
With only a few exceptions, the powers which Glasgow City Council exercises on behalf of a population of 600,000 are essentially the same powers exercised by Clackmannanshire Council on behalf of a population of 51,000.
Look around the world and you see that this is a highly unusual state of affairs.
In most countries today, and in Scotland for most of our history, big cities like Glasgow would look after more of their affairs than smaller places, which have less capacity to do so.
As in the rest of the UK, Scotland’s local government has evolved into its current centralised form over many years – as the hundreds of royal burghs and over thirty rural shires were gradually agglomerated first into districts and regions and finally into local council areas.
A lot was lost in that process, not least local identity and pride in civic government.
The lower than average participation rates in local elections in the UK, Scotland included, demonstrate the lack of interest and enthusiasm which surrounds local government.
We should have it as our target to increase enthusiasm in all levels of our democracy.
To do that we need to respect difference.
Cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee have large populations and small geographical areas.
Council areas like Stirling and Scottish Borders have smaller populations, spread across much larger areas.
In a country with the variety and diversity of Scotland, one size can never fit all. But when it comes to local government, we’ve pretended it can for too long.
Another stand-out feature is that Scotland has relatively few local governments – making them more remote from communities and individuals than is commonly the case around the world.
If I tried to repeat my exercise of visiting every local authority in a country with roughly the same population size as Scotland – Finland – I would have needed years rather than months to complete the task.
Whereas Scotland has 32 local authorities, Finland has exactly ten times as many: 320.
And in Norway, again with roughly the same population as Scotland, the task would be even harder: they have 421 local authorities.
Argyll and Bute is one of the few councils I have not made it to this year.
If Argyll and Bute was in Norway, instead of having one council it would have between six and ten highly empowered local governments.
As the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy said in its interim report, ‘for its size, Scotland has an almost uniquely low number of local governments covering unusually large populations and terrains.’
That means the most localised level of power and decision-making in Scotland is further away from local communities than it is in almost any other nation.
That could be said of the UK as whole, but for Scotland it is even more acute than for England and Wales.
As Cllr David O’Neill of Cosla has rightly observed,
Today, the debate is not about whether Scotland is out of step internationally. Instead it is between those who think that this is acceptable, and those who think it must change.
I know what side of the debate I am on, and I think I have most of civic Scotland on my side.
Scotland’s 32 unitary authorities were created with the best of intentions.
Just like with Police Scotland, it was felt that the greater efficiencies which combining services brought would outweigh the loss of local accountability.
I think we should all now accept that the existing model, in its current form, is not fit for the modern world.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that we embark on an old-fashioned, costly and disruptive round of local government reorganisation.
We’ve seen in the case of Police Scotland the problems that process can throw up.
We need to be smarter and to play to our strengths.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is going through the UK Parliament right now, I think points us the way.
It sets out a new and ambitious approach to give real power to cities, counties and towns in England.
The approach is bottom up, not top down. It does not force changes on councils, but rather it establishes a legal framework to allow local councils to shape their own destinies.
Groups of local authorities can come together to agree their own priorities and set their own paths to take over new powers for their area.
It could be taking control of local transport, housing, strategic planning, health, social care and skills training to boost growth and improve lives for their citizens.
And with greater powers comes greater responsibility, accountability and scrutiny, in some cases in the form of directly-elected, metro-wide mayors.
And it leads inevitably to thought of fiscal devolution from central government to local councils.
I’m sure many councils feel that the recent budget settlement shows the pressing need for a debate on that.
I think this is an example we should seriously study.
If Glasgow is to take its rightful place amongst global cities, it needs to have world-class governance.
City Deals: a great start
Glasgow’s economic and social interests don’t stop at the M73.
The University of Glasgow and the Burrell Collection are within the city boundary, but Glasgow Airport and the Golden Jubilee Hospital are outside it.
This underlying reality, that Glasgow is a metro-area of global significance whose interests and assets reach far beyond the local government boundary, is at the heart of the Glasgow and Clyde Valley City Deal.
That is one of the Coalition Government achievements of which I am personally most proud.
As many of you will know, the deal is comprised of three elements:
- a 20-year infrastructure fund;
- labour market programmes; and
- a private sector growth package which is focused on life sciences and business support.
When the Deal was originally announced the Prime Minister said he wanted ‘Glasgow to have the freedom, power and tools to innovate and succeed for a brighter, more prosperous future’.
That is exactly what the deal will help to achieve.
It will support an overall increase in the economy of around 29,000 jobs in the city region. 19,000 unemployed residents will be engaged and over 5,500 supported back into sustained employment.
£1 billion of UK and Scottish Government capital funding will be invested into infrastructure in the area, leveraging in an estimated £3.3 billion of private sector investment.
This is the direction we should be going in and other cities and regions across Scotland are rightly making their own cases for City Deals.
Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire as well as Highland Council have already submitted their plans and I wish both applications well.
I am confident that if they are judged to be viable options, they will do great things for their local areas.
City Deals are a huge step in the right direction, and they show the potential which exists. But they are just a first step.
Our ambitions for devolution within Scotland should be even bigger and even bolder.
And this raises a serious question – why isn’t Scotland taking the lead on this?
Like the Leader of Glasgow City Council, I was fortunate enough to be a member of the first devolved Scottish Parliament, elected in 1999.
I remember the buzz there was in those days on the Mound about the new possibilities which devolution offered.
We felt like pioneers. We assumed that it was our job to innovate and show the rest of the United Kingdom the way.
Even though my Party might not have supported every measure, there can be no denying that whether it be fox hunting, smoking in public places, the right to roam or Section 28 – where the Scottish Parliament led, the UK Parliament subsequently followed.
But that now seems like a long time ago.
On the crucial issue of breaking up the central government monolith, it’s now Westminster – and a Conservative Government – which is setting the pace and leading the way.
The Northern Powerhouse is breaking new ground. It explicitly models itself on Dutch and German models of metro-area devolution and infrastructure integration.
Already major powers over health, transport and planning have been hewn out of that Whitehall monolith and deposited wholesale into Lancashire.
And now that the Midlands Engine is firing up, with plans for a similar transfer of power to the Greater Birmingham area, as well as plans afoot in urban Yorkshire, suburban Hampshire and even rural Cornwall - the direction of travel for the rest of the UK is becoming crystal clear.
There is now a real risk that Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, and indeed the towns and counties of Scotland as a whole, will be left behind – stuck in a 1990s time-warp of centralised, Holyrood-dominance.
The Scottish Parliament has had full control of local government in Scotland for sixteen years. And in that time – what has it done to empower them? What has the Scottish Parliament put forward to match the ambition and vision of the Northern Powerhouse?
Perhaps one answer is that the interminable debate about Scotland’s constitutional place within the UK has drowned out debate about how power and responsibility is distributed within Scotland.
The referendum was decisive and an obsession with independence can no longer be an excuse to ignore this issue.
It’s time for Holyrood to step up and send real powers to the people.
The Smith Commission Agreement was explicit that responsibility for managing the Crown Estate, which is being devolved in the Scotland Bill, should be further devolved to local authority areas such as Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles or other areas who seek such responsibilities.
It has been argued by some that the UK Government should legislate to devolve these and other things directly to Scotland’s local authorities: so-called ‘double devolution’.
That is the right intention, but the wrong approach.
The Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are responsible for local government in Scotland and it is their responsibility to drive that devolution onwards.
They have a duty to do so and I will hold them to account for it.
The next great debate
So this should indeed be the next great debate in Scottish Politics.
And it should be a real debate - because one size does not fit all.
What is the right path for our big cities will not necessarily be right route for our villages and towns to take.
Just as devolution should not stop at Holyrood, neither should it stop at the town hall.
More power from Holyrood to councils should also mean more power for our burghs and villages across Scotland.
We’ve seen the success of City Deals. Why don’t Scotland’s local authorities strike Burgh Deals, so proud and historic Royal Burghs can have a more direct say in their affairs?
Scotland is fortunate to have a strong network of community councils, often based around historic settlements in which people feel real pride. Why don’t they take on more of a role, to counter the relative distance of Scotland’s local authorities, which I referred to earlier?
Councils large and small across Scotland need to make their voices heard and tell the Scottish Government what powers and responsibilities they want to have to shape their futures.
That should be national debate, and I today commit to play my part in that.
Devolution is not worthy of the name if it stops at the gates of Holyrood.
As David O’Neill has again observed: ‘Here and now, for our most deprived communities, what happens within Scotland and how we are organised to deliver better outcomes is a much more pressing issue.’
We need a proper conversation across Scotland, and we need the Scottish Government and the Scottish political parties to be participants in that.
As we look ahead to the start of next year’s election campaign and beyond, I invite everyone who cares about improving lives in Scotland to join that debate.