Monday, 17 October 2016

Could we get rid of local government?

I’m one of the editors of Local Government Studies journal. In a widely read and cited piece, Peter John in 2014(£) highlighted how English local government has remained resilient in the face of successive waves of reform. Looking at the issue from a Scottish perspective, there seems to be recently a lot of changes in the air that have led me to spend the weekend thinking about the question posed in the title of this post: could we get rid of local government?

As someone with a background in history, this question seems fair to ask – in the grand scheme of things, British local government is fairly new – the 1833 Burgh Corporations Act and 1835 Municipal Corporations Act set up the institutions that, eventually, became the local authorities we know and love/hate today. To remove an institution that is nearly 200 years old is not beyond imagination. I’m led to believe that the only statutory duties a local authority has to fulfil are to have a Chief Executive, Chief Social Worker and Chief Planner; all other duties can be fulfilled how the local authority wishes, from delegated authority from those individuals.

The easiest way to do it would be to do what seems to be happening in England: make local authorities contract out all their services, and cut their budgets so much that they eventually go bankrupt; stories like this are becoming regular.

In Scotland, something different seems to be happening. I thought I’d go through the key services in turn to play with my thought experiment.

Education: the SNP government went into the 2016 elections with a pledge to manage schools on a regional basis. Further, at their recent conference, a fudge was agreed that instead of removing charitable status from private schools, state schools would have it extended to them. In this excellent post, James McEnaney pulls apart what this would actually mean – separate charitable trusts receiving funding to runs schools. Just like academies in England, it would be very easy for this funding to come direct from the Scottish Government. Schools could then set their own admissions criteria, within national guidelines and a nation tribunal service could replace local council’s role in placing requests.

Children’s social work: all you would need to do is make those schools become “Children and Families Trusts”. The Head Teacher as the named person would coordinate social work services for vulnerable children. No need for local authorities to employ social workers. If the much-trailed review of the child care system finds that councils are failing, and parents are given vouchers to access childcare from other providers, then local authorities will have yet more services taken away from them.

Adult social care: the new Integrated Health and Social Care boards are moving adult social care away from direct council control anyway, to a shared, partnership form of governance. This piece by ITV news flags that the Scottish Government “is also looking at the number of health boards in Scotland and how they relate to local councils”. If the Scottish Government create 32 Health Boards to shadow the local councils, I’ll be gob-smacked. Cynically, I cannot help but think the tide might be in the other direction. If adult social care was given to Health Boards, then councils would lose another service. Probation services could be delivered by an extended Scottish Prisons Service.

Town planning: local authorities have three jobs in planning: write plans; decide on planning applications; and enforcement. Successive waves of reform to the planning system since 2006 have focused on increasing efficiency around making planning decisions. Feasibly, and by stealth, I could see Scotland moving towards a far less regulatory system. Basically, the Scottish Government, along with Historic Environment Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, would designate protected areas and create policies that dictate the quality of development and where development cannot take place for environmental or safety reasons. They would also have the National Planning Framework guiding major developments. You would then have deemed planning consent unless one of these policies applied. A version of the Community Infrastructure Levy would be payable to make up for minor environmental damage done and provide infrastructure. If a housebuilder then built a load of homes near no schools, poor roads, and no health services, then the market would be left to decide whether the development would be successful. Such a tick-box exercise could easily be run by a government Executive Agency with the Environmental Appeals body being there as a safeguard. If you look in detail at the hierarchy of planning in Scotland, we are not that far from this situation now. And local councils would lose another service.

Waste collection and street sweeping: in this age of community empowerment, I could easily foresee us being expected to clean the streets ourselves. In Germany you’re expected to sweep the pavement outside your house. Many new private housing estates in Scotland are privately factored, rather than relying on local council services. An expansion of this type of contracting, or the development of Housing Improvement Districts, akin to Business Improvement Districts, would provide a way to deliver services where owners do not sweep their own streets, or where they cannot agree on a factor. Participatory budgeting would also make this a lot easier. Business Improvement Districts could just take on more responsibilities to take over local council functions.

Waste collection could easily be managed on regional contracts, delivered by the Scottish Government. Many local authorities are now in regional partnerships anyway.

Roads and street lighting maintenance: local roads could easily be managed by Housing and Business Improvement Districts, or Community Councils managing budgets. Larger strategic roads could be included in the larger trunk road contracts Transport Scotland deliver.
Housing: of the local councils left that have their own housing stock, a few bad annual charter reports from the Scottish Housing Regulator, and just as with poorly performing housing associations and coops, then pressure could be put on councils to give their stock to larger housing associations to manage.

Parks, leisure, museums, galleries and libraries: Glasgow Council provides the model here, where Glasgow Life owns and manages these on behalf of the local council. Remove the board of councillors with a board of the local great-and-good, then individual trusts could then bid for funding from Creative Scotland, or come up with entrepreneurial ways to generate income locally, or cross-subsidise from services that may be able to be run at a profit (leisure centres) to those that cannot.

And hey-presto, your local council will not have any services to run anymore. It will be a shell of elected members with incredibly limited taxation powers, and employing very few staff directly. Part of this could be down to the longer-term centralisation of powers in the UK and Scotland, written about widely in academic circles. The erosion of local democracy in Scotland due to the reorganisation of local government in 1995 does not help here as well, with very little link between over-worked councillors and their electors. It also seems to be a trend picked up on by Alan Cochrane in his recent revisit of local government in England – that the spatiality of the local government is changing. He highlights that in England this is the “local” – so local government is being eroded by centralisation on the one hand, and the “devolution” of powers to “the local” through things like neighbourhood planning.

Back in 2007 the Scottish Government and COSLA celebrated their “concordat” and a new relationship between local government and the Scottish Government based on mutual respect. Almost a decade later, and it looks like this is being replaced by the same “hollowing-out” of local government as seen in England. Local authorities are portrayed as a wasteful middle – communities should be empowered to deliver their own services, using their own budgets, and we can achieve national outcomes, national consistency, and efficiencies by delivering other services at a national level. You could take the view that this is fine – local councils have had their day. I have to be more critical. Local councils are elected. Representative democracy is not ideal, but it’s the best system we have for managing conflicting interests between groups and areas. My real fear from an “empowered Scotland” emerging from the end of local councils would be that all communities would be equally empowered, but some communities would be more empowered than others.


  1. If Local Government is no longer important, what is the point of Constitutional Change?

  2. I thought your heart might not be in this devils advocate argument when I got to the bit about stuffing boards with the great and good! One problem is that democracy and huge bureaucracies don't work well together. It's all a bit Yes, Minister - any change that truly serves local people is really hard to achieve. But given the need to get these local people keener on funding good quality local services I can't help but feel we need a new effort to ensure people do feel they can trust the organisations taking their money and turning it into the services upon which we all depend.

  3. I agree (in fact I wrote a paper with this argument in it for Local Government Studies). I also think local councils are best placed to do this, but need the resources to support deliberative and representative democracy properly.