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Local accountability being compromised

It has been clear for some time that the Scottish Government's centralising tendencies were putting it on a collision course with Scottish local authorities.

The council tax freeze has local authorities over a barrel, facing major funding cuts if they break faith with Holyrood and hike the tax, but struggling to cover their costs all the same.

At the same time councils are seeing their authority diluted in one area after another, with police and fire services becoming stand-alone nationwide entities, grumbles of discontent over ministerial oversight of incoming health and social care partnerships, and tension over the Government's refusal to give local authorities more leeway on the closure of rural schools.

The latest concern of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) is over the way children's services could be delivered in future, after it warned that Scottish Government ministers were seeking a legal power that would allow them to establish new quangos, should they be dissatisfied with joint working arrangements between local authorities and the NHS.

The Scottish Government is not coy about the new national police service or its stance on rural schools, and why should it be? Ministers calculate, rightly, that there are strong arguments to be made in favour of these reforms that will resonate with voters.

But ministers cannot ignore the fact that a slide towards centralisation has an undeniable impact on local accountability.

It is a foundation stone of Scotland's democracy that councillors are answerable to local people for the way local services are delivered, but that link is being eroded as more of those responsibilities are diluted or removed.

Turnout in local elections is already very low. At the last poll in 2012 it was just under 40%. It is hard to see how centralisation will help improve voter enthusiasm.

None of this is to say more co-operation between councils and public sector bodies, and between neighbouring authorities, is not desirable; it is. With 32 unitary authorities of differing sizes, this is an area where efficiencies can be made and services improved; indeed, some local authorities are already showing what can be done with joint working and there is scope to do much more.

What is worrying for councillors, and local democracy, is that ministers are taking more control out of councils' hands. The much-heralded concordat of 2007 between the SNP Government and Labour-dominated local authorities, hailed as based on mutual respect and designed to give local authorities substantially greater flexibility and responsibility, appears moribund.

Of course tribal politics, with Labour councillors pitched against SNP ministers, is fuelling the discontent, but ministers would be unwise to dismiss the growing concerns about local accountability on those grounds alone. There are clear signs that the dissent is not confined to the SNP's old adversaries.

Back in March, Cosla president David O'Neill explained his objection to centralisation like this: "It will not lead to efficiency and effectiveness, it will lead to increased cost, inflexibility and an inability to respond to local requirements." Perhaps; perhaps not. What is clear is that local accountability is in danger of being compromised by the Government's centralising tendencies and no-one voted for that.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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