It is time for Holyrood to usher in a new age of local democracy

This week the Scottish Greens will unveil their proposed replacement for the discredited Council Tax. Andy Wightman, Local Government spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP candidate for Lothian, explains why reform of local taxation is vital...

After the 2015 General Election in May 2015, Scotland elected a new group of MPs to represent them in the UK Parliament. When those MPs returned home after their first week’s work, I took a look to see what they were up to. In Edinburgh, I discovered that the majority were meeting with constituents on matters including housing developments and education.

All well and good except that MPs have no responsibility for these matters, The concerns that were being raised were all to do with things that were the responsibility of the City of Edinburgh Council and which constituents ought to have been seeing their local councillors about. 

This is a small but telling example of how local democracy has been steadily eroded over the decades. It is not often realised that Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. other countries such as Germany and Italy have local councils serving population of around 7-8000 people with significant powers to raise local taxes for the kinds of services that local people want. In Scotland, the average population of a Scottish council is 166,000. 

With local democracy so distant from the citizen it is perhaps no surprise that turnout at that last election in 2012 dropped to 39% across Scotland. Across Europe it is well above 60% and as high as 75% in Italy.  If local democracy is strengthened by being more local and more powerful then people tend to take more of an interest in what it does and to take a more active part in local politics. Again, across Europe, around 1 in every 100 people stands for election to local councils. In Scotland it is 1 in every 2000.

One of the core principles of the Scottish Green Party is a revitalised local democracy. We want all decisions that can be made at a local level to be made at a local level. During the referendum in 2014, the Yes campaign argued that decisions about Scotland are best made by the people who care most about Scotland - the people of Scotland. Well, we think the same for decisions about Kilmarnock, Peebles, Montrose and Dingwall.

And yet over the past decades, Scotland’s local communities have seen a reduction in their autonomy. In 1975 all of the Town Councils were abolished and since then, both UK and Scottish Governments have curtailed the powers of local government over their own freedom to raise their own revenue. Scotland’s councils now raise only around 12% of their own finance compared with a European norm of 50%.

Scottish Greens are committed to putting power back in the hands of people and communities. This involves bold action on land reform, housing, local tax and local democracy. Over the past ten years politicians have tried to outbid each other on how much they could cut local taxes, competition which led to the council tax freeze. But imagine the outcry if at a General Election, David Cameron asked Scots to vote Tory and they would cut the rate of taxes set by the Scottish Parliament. In Germany, this kind of bribery is illegal as each layer of government is responsible for its own tax affairs.

Back at the beginning of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, a report commissioned by Donald Dewar on local government claimed that “Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do.” Sixteen years later on the last day of the fourth Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon conceded at First Ministers Questions that the next Parliament could look at the how power could be further devolved within Parliament.

Scottish Greens don’t want to wait any longer. We want to be able to go into the local elections in 2017 with proposals that allow local communities to take far greater control over their local affairs. We want local people to be able to plan where new housing and amenities should go, to decide how much tax to raise to pay for libraries, swimming pools and care services, and to take action to tackle urban blight, establish community energy companies or invest in new public transport services.

This is all quite normal across Europe but local democracy in Scotland is at a critical turning point with plenty of voices arguing for more centralisation to achieve often mythical efficiencies.

As the fourth Scottish Parliament ends, we would urge everyone to work during the next Parliament to strengthen local democracy. Local councils are a vital part of how we are governed by real local control has been undermined and sidelined for too long.

It is time for Holyrood to be bolder and to usher in a new age of local democracy to give real power back to the people.