The Case For Local Democracy Renewed

High quality public services are the bedrock of our society and as demand for services rises, we cannot duck the debate about how they are funded. When we look at the services local councils are responsible for delivering, it becomes clear why their funding is so important. In every community there are council staff working hard, providing help and operating facilities that we all use on a regular basis: schools, social care, housing, roads, leisure centres and libraries. Local councils in Scotland employ over 240,000 people - that’s almost 10 per cent of all the jobs in Scotland.

Despite the valuable work being carried out, we continue to treat local services as an afterthought. If we want schools, social care and community facilities to be of a high quality, we need to find a fairer way of funding them, and we need to take the debate out of Holyrood’s control and put the power in the hands of communities.

In the same way that Scottish Greens believe that independence gives Scotland a greater chance of developing a fairer society and a greener economy, we believe that more financial autonomy at local level gives our communities a better shot at raising more funds in a fairer way
to help run higher quality services.

Despite being in government for eleven-and-half years, the SNP have not made this area a priority. Instead we’ve seen commissions, reviews and consultations - indeed there’s another consultation apparently to come on that radical notion of a visitor levy or tourist tax, something that is commonplace in cities across Europe and around the world. It is ludicrous that after all this time the Scottish Government is only prepared to consult rather than get on with giving local councils the choice. Surely across the parties at Holyrood we can agree that this is a matter for local government, not national.

A modest levy on hotels, hostels and holiday lets is normal in other European cities and is backed by Edinburgh city council, which is run by an SNP-Labour coalition, and Glasgow city council which is run by an SNP minority. Many of my constituents in tourist hot spots such as Skye are also in favour, as the extra revenue would help address weaknesses in local services, transport links and visitor facilities.

As for Council Tax, all the parties on the 2015 Commission for Local Tax Reform agreed that it is outdated, discredited, unfair and must go. Despite this political agreement the government have ducked numerous chances to abolish it and replace it with a fairer system that puts more control in local hands.

For the last two years the Green MSPs have used the opportunity of a parliament of minorities to influence the budget, reversing planned cuts to local government. But this rear-guard action cannot continue. Councils deserve greater certainty. We cannot even begin to negotiate the coming year’s budget if ministers refuse to make progress on the way local services are funded. Giving councils the power to choose whether to charge a visitor levy is the least they could do, so indicating a consultation is well short of the mark.

I served as a Highland councillor, and I can tell you it’s a huge privilege and serious responsibility to be a community’s representative on everything from schools and social care to transport and housing. I look with envy at the kind of revenue raising powers taken for granted by cities and regions across Europe. Scotland is clearly lagging behind. Without reform we’re seeing councils increasingly resorting to unfair restrictions or hikes in charges. Councils have introduced music tuition fees, resulting in parents pulling their children out of lessons, while free services like swimming are being lost, and vital functions like social care are being cut back. And don’t get me started on the mass closure of public toilets!

Given the constitutional debate we’ve had in Scotland in recent years, and the new devolved powers we have, the time is ripe for devolution of responsibility away from Holyrood and toward city chambers and town halls.

If we care about the future of local services, local government should be funded on a sustainable basis rather than hand-to-mouth. There’s a historic backlog of cuts to address and we can’t do that through annual haggles.

Scotland’s local taxation system must have the freedom to raise additional resource in a way that recognises the local needs of communities. The Scottish public purse’s second biggest source of income after Income Tax is Non-Domestic Rates but these are bizarrely determined by
Scottish Ministers when local authorities know best what businesses in their area should be paying.

Those of us who think Scotland should be free to choose its own destiny need to recognise that by the same logic, local government should be free to determine its own path too.