THIS year marks 25 years of the Scottish Parliament and although the General Election is expected this year, the next election for the Scottish Parliament is two years away. Freed from the alternative truths that can be peddled during elections, Scotland has the opportunity to be more reflective and inclusive about how it should reset the governance of Scotland and create a more inclusive constitution that restores some trust in its democratic processes. It is time to acknowledge that Holyrood is not the only player.

Devolution has delivered much for the Scottish public, its communities and Scottish businesses. But the undeniable, negative feature of devolution has been a weakening of local democracy through centralisation of power, functions and services, especially from councils to Holyrood.

Is this what devolution was to be all about: creating an excessively centralised state? We think not and whilst others suggest strategies to devolve functions, powers and responsibilities from the Westminster Government to local government in England, there has been little debate in Scotland on the next stage of our devolution journey.

In 1989 civic Scotland established the Constitutional Convention to examine how to address the perceived weaknesses in the internal governance of the UK. We suggest here that we now need to establish a Civic Convention, examining how to address the weaknesses in the internal governance of Scotland.

The Mercat Group’s work has highlighted services and activities that used to be managed and held democratically accountable at the local level but now reside with some of Scotland’s 100-plus unelected quangos or with government ministers. These changes are contrary to the original ambitions of devolution and weaken local democracy by creating a hugely complex landscape of confusing boundaries and conflicting policies. This has made coordinated planning and delivery unworkable and stifled local initiatives and priorities.

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This seismic shift in the governance of Scotland not only weakens local democratic accountability but also restricts the natural flow of ideas and innovations that have historically been generated at region, city, town and community levels. We argue that encouraging local responses to national priorities can address national problems whilst being sensitive to local issues.

The latest example of centralisation is the proposal to nationalise local social care services and combine them with the NHS in the misdirected belief that in doing so all interface problems between social care and health will disappear. We all know the problem is a serious lack of financial resources for social care services as well as ineffective interface within and between the NHS family and social care services.

Scotland should be capable of engaging in a focused discussion on how public services should be organised, financed, delivered and held accountable.

The Herald: The latest example of centralisation is the proposal to nationalise local social care servicesThe latest example of centralisation is the proposal to nationalise local social care services (Image: Getty)

Public expenditure in Scotland was estimated in December 2023 at £79 billion and in the current financial year the Scottish Government will spend £60bn. Too much Parliamentary debate has focused on the adequacy of these vast financial resources with little debate on the mechanisms, or organisations that should be improved, created or shut down in efficiently delivering our devolved activities.

If this centralisation trend continues unchecked, nearly all public services will be delivered by unelected quangos or Scottish Government departments with no effective local democratic control or accountability. That would make Scotland an outlier amongst western democracies where the role of local democratic organisations is embedded in constitutions, valued and supported.

We do not want to be accused by future generations that we stood back and let this happen as a byproduct of devolution.

We believe, therefore, that Scotland needs a fundamental reset of the role, functions, responsibilities and financing of all public services with the aim of strengthening, not weakening, local democracy and accountability.

A Civic Convention 35 years ago dissatisfaction with the way Scotland was being governed by Westminster reached such a pitch that an independent organisation, the Scottish Constitutional Convention was formed. Established in 1989 this association of political parties, churches and other civic groups developed a framework for Scottish devolution. Their report published in November 1995, Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right, was seen as the blueprint for subsequent legislation creating Scottish devolution.

We believe that a similar model could be adopted to address the governance issues we face by creating a Scottish Civic Convention. Membership could be based on the consensus achieved by the Constitutional Convention. Its main aim should be to build a broad consensus on how Scotland’s public services should be organised, financed, and held to account as we go forward into the rest of this decade and beyond.

Specifically, we believe that the Convention should consider the following core issues:

First, the importance of all public services being held democratically accountable. Second, the appropriate level at which all public services should be managed, organised, delivered and held democratically accountable including those currently the responsibility of Westminster. Third, how public services should be financed and held to account. Fourth, a roadmap or timeline for making changes to the distribution of functions and services.

Read more: Police Scotland needs to be locally accountable

In short, the Convention’s recommendations should provide a clear path to a new civic Scotland fit for the future.

To create the space for this Convention to be formed and to deal with these challenges would require the agreement of the Scottish Parliament, political parties and those other elements of Scottish society that were so prominent in the workings of the Constitutional Convention. With goodwill on all sides this new Convention could start working this year and report by the end of 2025, in advance of the next Scottish Parliamentary election in 2026.

Pending the outcome of this report we also suggest a complete moratorium on any further transfers of locally accountable services to national organisations.

These are big asks at any time. Our view is that now the time is right to ask.

George Thorley writes on behalf of the Mercat Group, which is made up of former council CEOs, Bill Howat, Phil Jones, John Mundell, George Thorley, Gavin Whitefield and Keith Yates.