Time for councils that are fit for purpose

John Ruddy says it’s time to look again, not just at how local councils are funded but how they are structured, and to create a new system fit for the 21st century, incorporating regional strategy and local delivery.


It is now 25 years since the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang, announced his plans to reorganise Scottish Local Government into 28 unitary councils. Despite some minor changes these are the councils we have had since 1995. They were formed, not as the best way to deliver local services, nor in order to provide more responsive governance closer to the people. They were designed, at least in some areas, simply to maintain the Tory position in local government.

Previous schemes for local government in Scotland have lasted between 20 and 28 years, so it would seem apt to consider what structure is needed now for the 21st Century, looking at the challenges and opportunities of the modern day, rather than the gerrymandered solution of the last gasp of the Tory Government of the 90s.

What the experience of the last 25 years has shown us is that one size does not fit all.

Clackmannanshire Council – with a population of 53,000 – is responsible for delivering the exact same services as Glasgow City Council which serves 600,000. There are challenges facing some councils which can only be met by working with others – yet by the nature of such “partnership working” these have little to no democratic oversight.

We also now have a number of “City Deals” in progress and proposed across Scotland. These involve large sums of money committed by both Scottish and UK Government to delivering growth in various regions across Scotland. But again, there is little democratic oversight into their delivery. And they show that many projects can only work when considered across existing administrative boundaries.

But while local government is expected to do more and more, so the funding it is receiving from the Scottish Government is being cut. According to research carried out by the Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre, councils in Scotland have received cuts 4 times bigger than the cuts to the Scottish Government block grant. How we fund our local services needs to be looked at as well – including the proportion that is funded centrally and what is raised locally.

Traditionally, central government funding has been both to ensure a fair allocation of resources between richer and poorer areas and to deliver central government priorities, for example free social care. The percentage of their funding made up by council tax – almost the only income over which local authorities have control – is under 18% of the total. Nearly a quarter comes via non-domestic rates, allocated by the Scottish Government (a council doesn’t necessarily receive all the business rates that are raised within its area) and general revenue funding – a block grant – from the Scottish Government makes up nearly 60%.

As we decide on a way to change local government funding, we should also look at its structure., and what functions would sit best at which level. And that is why I believe a return to two tier local government should be Labour policy.

Large regions – many centred on the areas of the city region deals – would do the strategic planning and large scale projects which cross local boundaries – transport (including bus regulation and operation), education (including FE and HE) and enterprise (plotting the growth of the local economy). The local level councils would be much smaller, making services more responsive to local residents, and able to focus on delivering a service which matches the needs and wants of the local people. Some of these could be equivalent to the old district councils, while others would need to be new areas based on how our communities look now in the 21st century.

So we would have local services, delivered by and for local people, with regional bodies tackling the issues which need a big horizon, and economies of scale that can be delivered only by a larger body – but with democratic oversight, unlike now.

As Donald Dewar is reputed to have said, devolution is a process, not an event. It’s time for Scottish Labour to show that devolution doesn’t just end at Holyrood.

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18 thoughts on “Time for councils that are fit for purpose

  1. I don’t think the SNP have the political courage to re-organise local government but I would take issue with John’s idea to create two tiers of local government rather than the current one. As we found during the last time that was tried, it only created confusion among the constituents. As a District Councillor then, trying to explain that I couldn’t do anything about schools, but I had an influence on housing, just left people adrift. However, I believe a radical reorganisation is required. For instance, why does Ayrshire need three councils rather than one. Then responsibility for health could also be completely devolved to that Council, allowing a democratic oversight where there is currently none. Scottish Parliament and Government would have the responsibility of setting the strategic goals and the Councils would have the role of delivery. This could happen for many other sectors including transport and city deals.

  2. I think Jim is correct the 3 Ayrshire Councils could become 1 .
    I also don’t think its on the Scottish Governments to do list Funding would be vital I would like to see Holyrood becoming a clearing house for local Government spending allocate all funds directly to the local authorities

  3. The problem l see with merging 3 councils into one is that folks who want to go to the council office in person might have a lot more traveling to do in order to get to their destination. I also think that for those who live the furthest away from the council’s offices they might phycologicaly feel that they are not worthy and feel cut off and isolated from the council’s services. I think that before any proposed changes are discussed fully that an initial survey on the doorstep in person should be carried out to find out what folks think of any potential ideas and change’s to the current situation.

    1. Decentralisation would resolve that issue, as North Ayrshire are already proving

  4. If Labour and the Tories stop fighting local elections we can get the councils we deserve and need.

    1. That is the kind of woolly thinking that Labour had for years when they had no real opposition on Councils and put up party apparachicks rather than quality councillors. Thankfully Labour seem to have learned a very hard lesson, although it took too many losses for us to learn it

      1. How many Labour councillors do you know who don’t toe the party line Jim Bob? Todays Labour councillors would rather get into bed with the Tories to block out an SNP majority than the other way around.
        Not seeing that as an indication that Labour have learned anything about anything in Scotland.

        1. Not in North Ayrshire SNP have still to explain why they gave up control to reset the party their words and left Labour in charge

          1. You’ve got some gall providing an example of what I referred to in the Labour Tory partnership and then claiming its the SNP who has to explain why Labour are in bed with the Tories in Scotland when its obvious you still cant get a baw hair between Labour and Tory ideology these days.

  5. I think that Scottish Labour, SNP, Greens, Lib Dems in Scotland should have as their party policies that none of their local councilors should go into coalition with the Tories in any of the council’s in Scotland. I know that the SNP, Greens, Lib Dems would be capable but it worries me that Scottish Labour are still not able to get over their inherent tribal hatred of the SNP, although in a perverse way this has been positive in that l have noticed that a lot of folks l have met recently who are currently Labour Party UK members likewise support an Independent Scottish Labour Party in an Independent Scotland as l do.

  6. Thank you for your comment Ted
    The SNP were in power in North Ayrshire lost a by election to Labour we all woke one morning and found out they had resigned control of North Ayrshire Council to as we are told reset the party reset was the in word at the time .
    Their leader was on holiday so Labour picked up the pieces and took over .From the SNP who quit without warning .
    The day they did it I spoke to one of their members who had no idea it was going to happen
    At the next election Labour became the biggest party and we made it quite clear we were not going into coalition with any other party .
    The only way North Ayrshire will leave office is when the public vote them out of office .
    Not walk away and Ted you say we have an inherent tribal hatred of the SNP that cuts both ways

    1. Oh stop havering you didn’t wake up one morning to find the SNP had resigned anything you woke up to another example of a Labour Tory pact working together to keep out an SNP majority. Jesus Christ none of you have any intention of actually coming on line and posting a single fact about anything. You live a big fat lie because everything you want to believe in is corrupt to the core.

    2. David I think that Scottish Labour are more tribal than SNP and the evidence is that more young folks are more likely to join the SNP because it is more current media savvy and progressive and relevant to their needs, for example SNP are for free tuition as opposed to Scottish Labour although they have pledged to scrap tution fees they have gone back on their pledge and promise to scrapping students debt and are still going to chase youngsters for this outstanding debt see the thread below. In
      my opinion there is room for an alternative to the SNP and Scottish Labour which is not beholding to the Labour Party UK and that alternative is an Independent Scottish Labour Party in an Independent Scotland an autonomous new party. As soon as this Party comes into existence l will be joining toot sweet.


  7. Mike nothing to do with Tories SNP up and quit to reset the party no labour tory pact just SNP upset at losing a council by election to labour caused ironically by the SNP councillor resigning because she got elected as an MSP
    The SNP then gave up control to labour .No deals no coalitions
    And at the last election Labour were returned largest party no deals with anyone .

    1. David personally myself when it comes to who is running the council does not matter as long as they are doing a good job and anyway they are accountable to the electorate. I am not tribal but l suppose l am to a lesser extent in that l could never under any circumstances accept any coalitions with the Tories at local, Scottish Government or Westminster level. I think that the tribal hatred of Scottish Labour towards the SNP is dissapating since the election wipe out of the old guard and there is now just a few diehards left in Scottish Labour. I am now thinking that Brexit has changed the political landscape and as a supporter of an lndependent Scottish Labour Party in an Independent Scotland l would open up to having Gordon Brown as the leader of the new party because l think he is getting around to changing his mind and supporting lndependence, it’s a toss up between Gordon Brown and Kezia Dugdale both would be good leader’s.

    2. It had everything to do with the Labour Tory pact that toppled an SNP majority how can you have the gall to keep denying that INDISPUTABLE FACT.
      It was a repeat of a process that’s going on in nearly every council in Scotland. The equivalent in England would be the Tories and UKIP or the Lib Dems working together to keep out Labour council majorities.
      As far as Scotland is concerned labour are not in opposition to the Tories as they are in the rest of the UK they are in opposition ONLY to the SNP.
      The ramification of that is if you want Tory representation across Scotland you can vote either Tory or Labour.
      That’s the level of political corruption people like you are forced to lie for in Scotland because no matter how worthless corrupt and damaging this disunion becomes to Scotland wee Uncle Tams like you will NEVER put your country before your own position and support within an organised crime syndicate posing as a political party.

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