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A chance to revitalise our local democracy

First, Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles demanded it.

Now, Glasgow has too. Scotland's councils want more powers and, with the entire constitutional structure of the United Kingdom up for discussion over the next 12 months, it seems like the right time to consider such a change.

The three leaders of the island councils made their case in June and it was a convincing one. The islands have always had their own culture and identity and often feel the same way about Holyrood as those in Holyrood feel about Westminster: that power resides in a far-off place. The island councils are also anxious to retain control of the emerging renewables economy for the benefit of local people, and that is understandable.

The argument for increased powers for Glasgow, and other Scottish cities, rests on a similar economic argument. In making the case today, the leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, says cities drive national economies and that devolving powers and resources, particularly in areas such as job creation and economic development, can allow the cities to control and maximise that drive and bring benefits for the cities and the wider economy. Mr Matheson points to the City Deal programme in England that has handed such powers to Manchester and other major cities.

The City Deal programme is yet to bear fruit but in principle, more powers at a local council level is a good idea: it is always better to have the power to make decisions as close as possible to those who have to live with the consequences of those decisions. However, greater powers cannot be handed to councils without a deeper consideration of their role, function and, above all, their cost.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has been vehement in its support for enhanced local government though its Local Vision manifesto, but it has been resistant to the kind of reform that must accompany it, in particular a serious consideration of whether Scotland needs 32 councils. If greater powers are to be handed to councils, it must go hand in hand with a reduction in the number of councils and greater merger of staff and services.

The Scottish Government will not be drawn on such a reduction, but seems open in principle to greater powers for councils, although in practice it has demonstrated centralising tendencies and have delayed any decision until after the referendum.

It may be that it is the other potential benefit of greater council powers - and in particular the consequences in Labour-run Glasgow - that is giving the Government pause. For years now, local democracy has been wasting away, with shockingly low voter turn-outs. A new local government structure that hands greater powers to councils, and the cities they run, might just turn that around.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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