Even for those with only a passing interest in politics and government, it’s been a busy few months up here in Scotland. Most notably, we had our Independence Referendum on 18th September, and the subsequent discussions via the Smith Commission on what further powers could and should be devolved to our parliament at Holyrood. That report was issued in late November, with a plan to legislate on much of that even before May 2015’s General Election.
Over the coming few years, we will assume control of a range of new responsibilities, including the ability to set income tax rates and bands, bits of VAT and Air Passenger Duty – and keeping whatever is raised from those in Scotland. In addition, the Scottish Government will have some control over chunks of welfare (essentially, powers to determine the structure and value of elements of Universal Credit), over employment initiatives like the Work Programme, over the management and subsequent revenues from the Crown Estate in Scotland, and fuller control of transport including allowing the public sector to bid for rail franchises, powers to set speed limits and (bizarrely!) over all road traffic signs.
For some, this isn’t enough: does this ability to tax income (but not other forms of wealth or assets like oil & gas) allow us to really grow our economy and take genuinely different courses of action on welfare and so on? For others – including Lord Smith himself – this is simply a good start, and has at least secured the support of all five political parties in the Scottish Parliament.
Of particular interest was Smith’s explicit recommendation that the parties show a similar commitment to “see the principle of devolution extended further, with the transfer of powers from Holyrood to local communities.”
This continues a noticeable trend over the past few months to commit to moving decision-making closer to people and their communities: there’s certainly loads of other things going on up here that point in that direction.
Just a few months ago, COSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the representative body for local government) published a thoughtful, laudable and I think successful attempt to influence national thinking on principles of subsidiarity, ‘spheres of governance’, community empowerment, democratic deficits and improving outcomes. Its Commission on Local Democracy is well worth a read and makes a compelling case why local services and local accountability matters – and therefore why devolution shouldn’t stop at Holyrood.
The Scottish Government is now consulting on its Community Empowerment Bill which – although largely a ragbag of bits and pieces of community-focused initiatives – has some pretty strong policy commitments on more wide-ranging Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs), rights for community groups to request involvement in planning, extending Community Right To Buy, decent procedures for community asset transfers to communities, and welcome new powers for flexibility on local reliefs on National Non-Domestic Rates (local business rates).
And just at the end of November, Scotland’s new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out her inaugural programme for government, promising an administration that is “decentralising”. Among 12 bills detailed, two are particularly relevant. First, a commitment to Land Reform aimed at securing a ‘fairer, wider and more equitable distribution of land’ in Scotland through possible measures to break up large land holdings, providing help to communities (including in urban areas) to buy the land that surrounds them, removing business rate exemptions for shooting and deerstalking estates, and penalising landowners who act as ‘a barrier to sustainable development’.
Second, she announced that an independent commission would be set up to report on fairer alternatives to the Council Tax by autumn 2015. My view is that the current SNP administration’s Council Tax freeze (replicated in England by the Coalition) flies in the face of genuinely local democracy. In Scotland, just 18% of local income is raised through local taxation (compared with proportions nearer 50% elsewhere in Europe). This limits the spend and investment choices available to local communities and will inevitably affect their participation rates. It should be a point of principle that local people decide what taxation is levied and services delivered.
What all of these events, initiatives, policies and announcements have in common is this: they are about power, where it lies, how it’s used and for whose benefit. A national conversation has begun in Scotland on these issues. Hopefully this will continue – perhaps even more emphatically – at local levels by elected councillors, community groups and individual citizens.
For us in Scotland, it will mean a profound change in attitude by our local authorities and other public sector partners. It will mean recognising – as set out by Ben Ramalingam – that “managed systems of people, land, resources, assets and services are all unique”. It opens the door to genuinely diverse communities – with no nationally-prescribed plan and no top-down approaches locally – and occasionally unpredictable events and unforeseen opportunities. Things are messier, yes, but so be it.
For others in the UK, it should also spark similar debates about devolution, decentralisation, control by Westminster, Whitehall and our big public sector organisations. Different parts of the country should be able to experiment with different ways of doing things too.
What we’ve gone through in Scotland in the past year or so has been very special but the lessons cannot be unique.
David Welsh is Director at MainStreet Consulting