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Wise counsel on the Nordic model

It has been said that Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe, and becoming more so.

But debates about reshaping local government too often seem to advocate further emphasising this trend.

For years the received wisdom has been that 32 local councils are too many. The last local government reorganisation did away with a system of nine regions and 53 district councils and replaced it with a model that is neither efficient nor sustainable.

Fewer councils would make more sense, it has been argued. The suggestion therefore that Scotland should instead have many more councils, in the region of 100, therefore seems counter-intuitive.

But there is more to this proposal from an independent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy set up by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Local government is often more effective in other countries, where it is closer to the people it serves. It also has more public support.

In Scotland, as the powers of councils have been steadily depleted, interest in participating in local democracy, as a councillor or a voter, has sunk ever lower.

If they were given greater powers to raise taxes, or spend existing property taxes, it is possible we would see a much larger number of councils making a dramatic difference to the way local people determine local priorities. Other countries manage it. Norway has more than 400 municipalities, Finland more than 300. The predictable objection is about efficiency, or its lack.

But the commission's proposal is not for 100 bodies replicating the work of current councils. Many systems could be shared. Scotland need not have 100 education directors, or payroll systems. Instead, the report envisages technical aspects of how services are delivered being set on a national basis, with councils implementing policy on the ground, responding to differences in demographics, geography and the expressed priorities of local people.

Change has been much discussed, but the proposals advanced have tended to favour efficiencies of scale over local accountability. This is surprising given that the Scottish Government preaches the advantages of Nordic-style social democracy, although the SNP has faced criticism for centralising tendencies. Strong, decentralised local decision-making is arguably a key factor in the success of countries like Norway and Denmark.

Unprecedented public-sector cuts are likely in 2015 and 2016. The council-tax freeze is not sustainable against this backdrop and a viable alternative to the SNP's Local Income Tax, found wanting on several fronts, is still awaited.

This report offers a radical way of rethinking the role, scale, effectiveness, funding model and spending powers of local government. Cosla, which commissioned it, must decide if it and its members are willing to rally behind the findings.

Meanwhile, Scottish ministers should ask if they feel fewer councils should do the same amount for less money, or whether Scotland should instead emulate the way things are done by some of the small countries they admire.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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