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Scottish local government is broken. Here’s how to fix it

Jack Boag

Most people in Scotland have no idea what their councils do, what powers they have; or even who their councillors or council leaders are. And trust in our councils and our councillors is low. This isn’t just about how they run things; the system is horrible too, from the size of the councils to the way we vote for them. Dividing Scotland into manageable chunks has failed many a civil servant drawing up boundaries, and the attempts to modernise the old county and burgh system of local government that led to the system created in 1973, and our current one in 1994, could both be described as failures. First, there needs to be an in-depth look at the system.

Every single patch of Scotland is divided into one of 32 “local authorities” or councils. These range from the city ones like Edinburgh and Aberdeen, to gargantuan rural expanses like Highland, and all with the ‘Wee County’ of Clackmannanshire thrown in there somewhere. Each person is represented by either three or four councillors, elected to a constituency called a ‘ward’. They are elected every 5 years, through a system known as Single Transferable Vote, which is where voters rank their preferred candidates in order (as opposed to just picking one candidate or party, like they do for the House of Commons, or in the Scottish Parliament where for their constituency it is one vote per candidate, and for the regional list it’s one vote per party). Confused? Well, you’re not the only one.

A good example of how STV works is my own council ward outside of term, Tay Bridgehead ward on Fife Council. It is represented by 2 Liberal Democrat councillors and 1 SNP councillor. This is despite the fact that the Conservative candidate got more votes in the first instance than the second Lib Dem. However, transferred votes from other candidates (either defeated or elected) meant that a second Lib Dem was elected instead of a Tory. Had it purely been First Past The Post for three seats, that final seat would be blue instead of orange.

Newport lacks representation in Dundee City Council, despite being closely affected by decisions made there

The introduction of the STV electoral system in 2007 is to date the last major piece of reform to our local government. Prior to that, it was pure First Past the Post (like Westminster), but a change to the electoral system for the locals was a key promise of the Liberal Democrats in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election, and was a key condition of their continued coalition with Labour in Holyrood. However, because of the distinct lack of reform to general elections to the House of Commons, the hybrid systems created for both the Scottish Parliament and local councils are still judged by the absurd metrics of First Past the Post.

Winning the first preference vote in the locals determines whether a party’s performance in a ward is deemed a success or failure, and multi-member STV can bring in added effects if parties decide to stand more than one candidate. The only reason the Scottish Conservatives didn’t get as many councillors as they should is that they didn’t put enough candidates up, and the Greens were massively shafted by the SNP standing 2 candidates in wards where they could only realistically win one councillor. Single Transferable Vote is yet another cop-out from genuine reform away from the First Past the Post system that continues to wreck electoral politics, not just in Scotland, but across the UK.

However, the system of the 32 unitary authorities (29 for the mainland, plus Eilean Siar, Orkney Islands, and Shetland Islands), and the way it was instituted, particularly in rural areas, resulted in either people’s voices being drowned out by bigger towns with more voters (problem councils like that being Fife and North Lanarkshire), or local representation not really being that local at all (see Highland, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute and Dumfries and Galloway).

A lot of the unitary authorities that were drawn up in 1994 are former districts or regions of the previous two-tiered system that was put in place in 1973. For example, Argyll and Bute comes from the old district of the same name in the former Strathclyde region. Perth and Kinross comes from the old district in the Tayside region. Dumfries and Galloway, Fife and Highland were all regional councils under the old system, with a variety of district councils underneath them. We need to pick apart and create a new system of local government for Scotland that is designed to fit in with structures that have come after it (for example, the Scottish Parliament, which is 5 years younger as a legislature than the act that created our current local government.

I’m not going to take credit for the idea to fix it. A lot of what I’m about to say comes originally from the New Municipalism report, published by Ballot Box Scotland – primarily a polling website run by Scottish Green activist Allan Faulds. The report is looking at returning to a two-tier system of regions and districts and it details what those regions and districts should be (hint: with the exception of the cities, they’re mainly much smaller than any of the current units).

One of the things that we both agree on is the restoration of the two-tiered system. However, unlike from 1973, Glasgow and Edinburgh must be kept separate from the two tiers. There is no region into which you could encorporate either of them as districts without the city overpowering its commuter belt neighbours. This is something that Ballot Box Scotland decided to go with in the New Municipalism Blueprint. They also retain unitary status (having the powers of both a regional and district council) for the three existing island councils (Eilean Siar, Orkney and Shetland), and I’m inclined to agree as well, to stop them being drowned out as districts inside a vast Highland region.

We both also agree that the size of both region and district needs to be smaller than the ones that were in place from 1973-1994. However, there are certain units that just work. For example, Tayside as a region makes a lot of sense, combining the traditional counties of Angus, Perthshire and Kinross-shire (the three old districts of Tayside; Angus, Dundee and Perth and Kinross are all individual councils today) as well as the modern day cities of Dundee and Perth. I would also want to see these regions also implemented instead of the ones that are currently used to elect the list MSPs, of which there are in my opinion not enough – in what world is an MSP simultaneously representing Stirling and St Andrews, or Dunbar and Kilmarnock, ‘local’?

However, my critique of Ballot Box Scotland’s proposals is that there needs to be a greater recognition of places as commuter belts for cities. Rightly, Glasgow and Edinburgh shouldn’t be put into wider regions as for their voices not to drown out others you need a region too big to really be local (which was the case in the 1973-94 regions, with the gargantuan regions of “Strathclyde” and “Lothian and Borders”). Again, my own situation is a recognition of the failing of current local government and representation.

I live in a town called Newport-on-Tay, directly across the Tay Road Bridge from Dundee. My house in Newport is closer to Dundee City Centre than a lot of Dundonian suburbs. This connection to Dundee is recognised both in the system of postcodes and landline telephone numbers, but not in local government or regional representation, where it is part of Fife Council (the third most populous in Scotland). Fife Council is its own beast – while not large in size, it is large in population and everyone in it wants different things – Glenrothes and all north of it looks to either Dundee or Perth for its regional centre, whereas Kirkcaldy and all south of it forms part of the fairly vast Edinburgh commuter belt.

At the moment, residents in Newport have no power or say in decisions taken by Dundee City Council that have repercussions for Newport residents – most of whom work in Dundee. By creating a system that allows at least Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee to give a voice to those in greater city regions – either by expanding city boundaries (something the New Municipalism report opposes) or creating hybrid committees to give those just outside the city a way to influence decisions taken in the City Chambers that affect them. And there’s another proposal that is not mentioned at all in the report that I would support – directly elected mayors, at least for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Who is the most well known serving local government leader in the UK? Probably Sadiq Khan, the directly elected Mayor of London. By being able to participate in who leads a city, you increase the engagement from people in local elections, which is partially the name of the game. Giving the citizens of Scotland’s cities that choice will make people pay more attention to who their councillors are and what they are doing.

There’s also the thorny issue of what powers will each council have- but that’s a discussion for another day. Ripping up local government and starting again needs to happen; in order to even discuss transfer of power from the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament to these new councils. I’m not too hopeful it will happen, but at least some kind of reform needs to be done. Scottish local government wasn’t drawn up with devolution in mind; it’s time for the Scottish parliament to design a system that’s actually fit for Scotland.

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