CASTLE Toward is a sprawling Victorian mansion near Dunoon. A local trust wants to purchase it under community right-to-buy legislation but, so far, attempts to reach a deal with the owner, Argyll & Bute Council, have failed. On Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon used the very public forum of First Minister's Questions on Thursday to tell council leader Dick Walsh to get on with it. She was careful to qualify her remarks, stressing the final decision on a sale was for the council to make, but her message could not have been clearer.

The pressure she exerted was of the kind that is causing resentment in town halls across Scotland.

Castle Toward is a small example but this week a much more serious row erupted between John Swinney and councils' body COSLA over the falling number of teachers in Scotland's schools.

Unveiling his final budget plans for the coming year, the Finance Secretary announced a £51million funding package to help councils hire new staff. But it came with a sting in the tail. Local authorities would only receive a share of the money if they committed to maintaining teacher numbers and could demonstrate they had budgeted accordingly.

Mr Swinney, who had already waived his right under an existing agreement with COSLA to fine councils for failing to keep up the numbers last year, was no longer in any mood to compromise. The move drew a furious response. David O'Neill, the president of COSLA, fumed at the "blatant attempt" to take charge of council decision-making.

The SNP government has often been accused of exhibiting a keen centralising tendency and Mr Swinney's ultimatum added to a lengthy charge sheet. The power of local authorities to set their own council tax rates was effectively ended by the council tax freeze, which works by threatening to withhold funds from those which refuse (none has).

The merger of eight regional constabularies into Police Scotland concentrated power into the hands a singe chief constable who, critics warned, might be more vulnerable to political pressure. As things stand, the force implements the government's flagship policy to maintain officer numbers at 17,234, 1000 more than when the SNP took power, as a strict condition of receiving its full budget, regardless of whether it believes the money might be better spend employing fewer cops and more civilian staff.

The reorganisation of Scotland's colleges into a regional structure was also claimed to be part of a "centralising agenda," which gave ministers greater control over how funds were spend and institutions runs.

Legislation to reform the governance of higher education institutions, due to go before Holyrood later this year, has been described as an attack on the centuries old independence of the country's ancient universities. Other reforms, from court closures to enterprise agency shake-ups and quango mergers have also been seen as evidence of the SNP tightening its grip on Scotland's public authorities.

Supporters see nothing untoward in all this. This is simply what a government looks like when it is governing, they say. A party that had little experience of running anything before 2007 has shown itself highly adept at wielding the levers of power.

Others see it differently. Gordon Matheson, the leader of Glasgow council, detects a "nation building" exercise at work; a deliberate attempt to make Scotland look and feel like an independent country by creating a highly centralised state-within-a-state.

A senior Lib Dem - another fierce critic of centralisation - put it another way: "I think they believe they are doing the right thing but it undermines the principle of decision-making being taken at local level. What is the point of electing local councillors if central government is determined to ride roughshod over their mandate?" She sees a nakedly political motive in Mr Swinney's latest challenge to councils: watch out for election leaflets claiming the SNP is protecting teacher numbers, despite figures to the contrary.

It is against this background that the desire of local authorities to grab a slice of Holyrood's promised new welfare and employment powers should be seen. Labour's widely-ridiculed "Vow Plus" included a promise of legislation to put town halls in charge of the DWP's work programme, while Mr Matheson has already called for talks with the Scottish Government on the issue. There is a feeling across local government that, unless a strong case is made now, ministers will not be inclined to hand control£500million scheme to anyone else.