Devolution difficulties for Holyrood

Scotland's political parties agree more power should be devolved from the Scottish parliament but disagree on how to do it. Credit: PA

With the events to mark 20 years of the Scottish parliament a lot of attention has been paid to the devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood.

Not as much attention has been paid to the debate within Scotland about whether more power should be devolved from Holyrood. So here goes.

Some of the most trenchant criticism of the SNP government in Edinburgh has been that while it wants to take power from London, it has not been prepared to give away the power it has in Edinburgh.

The opposition claim the Nationalists are a party that believe in decentralising the UK - ultimately completely - but in centralising Scotland. It's a charge the SNP deny but sometimes find it difficult to defend.

So what is their record? Let's look at financing for local government. A new briefing by the excellent politically neutral researchers at the Scottish parliament's SPICe is informative.

In real terms they found that between 2013-14 and 2018-19, "the local government revenue decreased at a much faster rate (-7.5% or -£810 million) than the Scottish Government revenue budget (-2.8% or -£870.4 million)".

Those are the facts, which show that, relatively speaking, local councils have not done as well as (or you might say have done even worse than) the Scottish government, in times of 'Westminster austerity'.

However, SPICe also note on "figures for 2018-19 to 2019-20...the revenue settlement for local government increases by 1%, and the Scottish Government's revenue budget increases by 0.9%" so there are signs the trend might be reversing.

Money for councils aside, SNP ministers also stand accused of intervening in a wide range of policy areas where where local bodies, or local people, might be expected to make decisions on the basis of local knowledge and local priorities.

Ring-fenced funds as a proportion of Total Revenue settlement, 2013-14 and 2019-20 Credit: Local Government Finance Circular 2/2013Scottish Government.

In NHS, the health minister Jeane Freeman has taken action over regional board budgets - including in the Borders - or on hospital closure plans.In education, the Deputy First Minister John Swinney has created 'regional collaboratives' to sit above councils to try to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

Now, speak to both ministers and others at Holyrood and they will say they are held to account in the Scottish parliament for problems in these services, so they have to act. Voters expect them to.

Mr Swinney, for example, has spoken about how he has simply found that some councils were - in his judgement anyway - simply not up the job when it comes to closing the attainment gap.

What are we supposed to do, ministers ask, and they accuse the opposition of hypocrisy - demanding local autonomy, and also demanding ministers step in to solve problems which arise locally by using central government powers.

And in case this is just seen as an issue for the SNP, it is worth pointing out that, although it seems a very long time ago now, there were the same tensions when Labour and the Liberal Democrats ran the then Scottish executive.

They often faced demands for action from the Holyrood government they ran from the then opposition - yes, the SNP.

What of the future? Is all politics local? I asked all the Holyrood parties if they favoured further devolution of power? Not surprisingly they all said they did.

There isn't room, I'm afraid, to go into the full sometimes complicated details in this article, but here's a flavour.

The SNP favour more power to both local authorities and further decentralisation beyond that. An example would be the Community Empowerment Act which gave councils the power to buy unused buildings and use them for the local community.

The Conservatives say local politicians should as far as possible take local decisions and they do not favour one specific model, but say the recent 'City deals' - similar to the Borderlands Growth deal - are an example.

Labour believes in giving more power to councils, for example to run their own bus services, and for local authorities to be able to raise more of their own income in local taxes.

The Scottish Greens say the focus should be on local tax-raising powers. They believe in a fundamental change from council tax to a land value tax but cite the recent car-parking levy, agreed with the SNP, as an example of immediate reform.

And the Lib Dems want to reverse centralisation and give councils the powers to set local domestic and business taxation, while also removing the financial penalties used by the present government to exert control.

However, as ever, money and funding are are the heart of all of this.It is fair to say that unless councils can raise more of their own revenue - it's currently less than 20% - they will always be under pressure to conform to central government policies.

Nicola Sturgeon, stronger for Scotland Credit: PA

However, reforming local government finances is fraught with difficulty.Nicola Sturgeon thought about it in her early years as First Minister, and decided that if it involved revaluing homes for council tax there would be too many losers and it would be politically difficult and damaging in terms of electoral support.

One of her predecessors, Labour's Jack McConnell, ran a mile from a report which suggested changing the council tax with its out of date 'valuations' to a system based on up-dates property value for the same reason.And remember back to the 'poll tax' proposed by Margaret Thatcher, which seemed like a logical idea to her and her government at the time, but turned out to be a disaster.

All of which might help to explain why there has been more debate about devolving powers for Holyrood from Westminster than there has about devolving powers from Holyrood to town halls or to local communities.All the political parties agree devolution from Holyrood is a good thing, in theory. It's a lot more difficult in practice.