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Holyrood could devolve more powers now

Advocate General says Scottish Government could devolve more powers to local communities now - no need to wait for independence referendum

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The Advocate General for Scotland Lord Wallace QC has accused the Scottish Government of holding a ‘gun to the head’ of local government by refusing to give them more powers unless Scotland votes for independence.

Lord Wallace said there was nothing to stop Holyrood handing over more powers to Scotland’s local communities right now other than their ‘centralising agenda’ which means keeping powers in Edinburgh.

The Advocate General highlighted the contrast with the UK Government who are now devolving more economic powers than ever before to Holyrood. The Minister also said the UK Government was working directly with Scotland’s cities and islands to find ways in which powers can be used more locally to help their economies.

Speaking at the Cosla conference in St Andrews today, Lord Wallace said:

The whole of the UK needs more business and employment opportunities to grow our single, integrated economy.

The UK Government’s firm belief is that transferring powers from government to cities will make it easier for cities to achieve that economic growth.

We are committed to delivering an ambitious City Deal for Glasgow and the wider Clyde Valley area.

It is about empowering local areas to take charge of and responsibility for decisions that affect their area; to do what they think is best to help businesses grow and create economic growth; and to have the power to decide how public money should be spent.

We are as committed to working with our local government partners in islands and rural communities as we are our colleagues in Scotland’s cities.

And of course devolution has meant responsibility for decisions about the functions of local government now rest with the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government.

That of course means that it does not require independence to effect further change.

I hope our engagement with the Islands – and our commitment to exploring city deals across the United Kingdom – demonstrates our willingness to consider ideas.

I would not propose to make commitments here today to so called “Islands Acts”. Nor would I ever wish to make such a thing contingent on a particular vote in the referendum.

The issues – grid connections, greater community benefit from oil and gas revenues, international recognition and representation, an economic “islands deal”, reform of the UK-wide Crown Estate, are too serious for “gun-to-head” negotiating tactics.

What I will say is that I understand the case for change. And what I would like to see – and what the Islands Councils are already doing – are proposals for change that are properly evidenced. That they are fully impact assessed so people understand the risks and costs as well as the benefits.

The UK Government stands ready to work in partnership with all Councils where they are making such a case for change.

Scotland’s devolution settlement has always been flexible. Since 1999, there has been devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers on issues as diverse as railways, renewable energy and the power to hold this year’s legal, fair and decisive referendum on Scottish independence.

The devolution of further tax powers through the Scotland Act 2012 demonstrates that continuing flexibility.

I have already touched upon the fact that this flexibility must not relate only to the transfer of power from London to Edinburgh.

The Scottish Government’s White Paper says, “On independence, the structure of local government in Scotland will remain the same”.

It is true that it also goes on to say that “independence will give us the power to embed the role of local authorities in a written constitution and consider the most appropriate responsibilities for local government and communities”.

But of course there is nothing to stop the Scottish Government doing this now. It is that “gun-to-head” negotiating tactic again. Deliberately implying that only independence allows anything to happen, which simply is not true.

It reflects a lack of vision and imagination, but possibly not surprising given the “centralising agenda” which has been a hallmark of much of the Scottish Government’s time in office.

It is inevitable the political focus will be on the referendum for the next six months. And I readily understand the desire to use the debate to focus on what is best for local government.

Indeed, that is what individuals and organisations across all walks of life in Scotland are doing.

None of us, however, should be doing this just to be opportunistic. There would have been a case for reform and renewal in local government in Scotland if there had been no referendum on our future within the United Kingdom.

And the UK Government is committed to an open dialogue with COSLA, individual local authorities and groups of local authorities to reach a consensus. Not on if there should be change but what that change should be.

Published 14 March 2014