CSPP – Local tax reform, greater local authority devolution and increased community engagement could play a role in the changing face of local government in Scotland according to a forum held on Tuesday in Edinburgh to discuss the topic.
The discussion was organised by the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) Scotland, with the Centre for Scottish Public Policy’s Chair, Professor Richard Kerley, invited as a special guest. Several CSPP members were in attendance, with local and community councillors, consultancies, media, and third sector organisations also present.
Centralisation vs Localism
Following an introduction from Dr. Andy Johnston of LGiU, Professor Kerley offered his thoughts on some of the issues facing local government in both Scotland and the wider UK.
One of these was the tension between centralisation and localism in the context of a perceived hierarchy of decision-making which does not give parity of esteem to local government. In this on-going debate, one view sees central government as a more effective at “getting things done”, while another holds that local decision-making better serves and engages those who are affected by these decisions.
With greater local government devolution occurring in England, and in the context of arguments made in the independence referendum over the appropriate locus of power, this issue is likely to feature on the agenda in Scotland too.
Linked to this, and to the issue of cuts to local government funding, is the work of the Commission on Local Tax Reform, whose report is due shortly. However, the CSPP Chair suggested that it would be politically difficult to implement whatever options for reform are proposed due to the vocal opposition of any adversely affected groups.
A third issue, which was referenced in the Renewing Local Democracy Commission of 2000, is the necessity to balance and integrate representation with participation in local government.
Professor Kerley’s summary of issues facing local government was followed by an open discussion. Much of this focused on how to increase engagement and participation in community councils, local authority decision-making, and public affairs more generally. Such discussion highlighted that the issue is of key concern to stakeholders in local government and communities.
Several examples were given of projects by community groups or local authorities through which more people became engaged in decision-making in their area. Nonetheless, it was recognised that a lack of time, information, opportunity or interest can act as a barrier to participation, and that mechanisms and efforts are required to overcome this.
Ideas to promote greater participation in local authority decision-making included participatory budgeting, the so-called CLEAR model for enhancing public participation, and the holding of local referenda. The wording of Scottish Government / Parliament consultations also received praise for encouraging engagement.
Other issues discussed at the meeting included local economic development, the planning system, and trends in local government across the UK.
LGiU Scotland’s Andy Johnston and Janet Sillett rounded off the discussion by asking for feedback on the organisation’s briefings and policy information service, which is running as a free trial until the end of the year.
They also noted with interest the importance of greater community engagement and participation for those present, which looks set to feature on the agenda for local government in 2016.
Note: The CSPP sent an evidence-based submission to the Commission on Local Tax Reform, prepared with input from our members. This can be read in our online library.