On the 1st of June, campaigning ahead the September 18th referendum on Scottish independence officially began. An independent Scotland’s relationship with Europe and the fiscal impact of separation have dominated the succession debate to date. What would Scottish independence mean for local government north of the border?
Since local government reorganisation in 1996, Scotland has 32 local authorities, each of which hold the same set of powers. Could the function of local government in Scotland be about to change forever?
What are the Scottish National Party offering local government as part of the referendum package? At first glance, nothing will change – “the structure of local government in Scotland will remain the same, with local councils continuing to deliver the full range of services they offer today” suggests the Scotland’s Future White Paper.
However, Scotland’s Future does show some significant metaphorical leg with regard to legally enshrining the shape and responsibilities of councils within the new written constitution for Scotland – status which exists in many other European countries under the European Charter of Local Self-Government. It will be down to the convention drawing up the separation of powers between the UK and a newly independent Scotland to make decisions on this. No firm commitment has been made.
In the event of independence, are the Scottish National Party really minded to push for a measure that would create significant autonomy for councils? Their record to date might prove instructive. Local government is already devolved to the Scottish Government. Existing scope for reform is considerable. A raft of changes introduced post-devolution have been a mixed-bag when it comes to promoting localism – a Council Tax freeze and the creation of national police and fire services being two prominent changes in the deficit column. Would a newly independent Scotland, having just won hard-fought powers, sign a legally binding undertaking to give others away? Only time will tell.
However, should local government obtain powers in a written constitution, this would arguably create a solid platform from which councils in Scotland could push for further fiscal independence from the Scottish Government.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) has recently published an interim report on the future of local government in Scotland. It highlights the weak position of Scottish councils. Scotland has the third lowest locally-generated tax revenue as a percentage of total local government revenue out of 24 nations studied by the OECD – although that applies across the UK rather than just Scotland. COSLA believes constitutional foundations are the key differentiator for countries with settlements more favourable to localism.
James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, has argued that if potential is to be turned into reality, councils in Scotland must play their part – including taking tough fiscal decisions “to convince a sceptical electorate that they are up to the job of making big changes.” It takes two to tango.
It’s the economy stupid
Equally, a written constitution for local government achieves nothing in itself. Councils will still to a great extent be a prisoner of the wider fiscal context in which they find themselves. The competing cases for the fiscal state of an independent Scotland advanced by respective parties recently will decide whether constitutionally founded councils inherit a pot of gold or a poisoned chalice at the dawn of succession. Better Together, the campaign for a ‘No’ vote, have argued the latter.
A potential test case for local government
In summary, Scottish independence has potential for change, but a ‘Yes’ vote on September 18th will not in itself cause an earthquake of localism north of the border. Instead it will rely on SNP appetite (uncertain) and councils making a persuasive case (far from guaranteed). However, notwithstanding the financial context, should constitutional guarantees emerge from independence, Scotland will provide a fascinating test case for local government watchers in the rest of the UK with regard the potential new-found confidence that legal certainty brings.