(Following my tweets today – if you simply want the source for the statistics and brief descriptions of the functions of the various tiers, download and read Local and regional Government Structures in Europe. Structures and Competences published by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions and for more background arguments of reform, read Jimmy Reid Foundation report)

For those who wish a little bit more context, please read on.

According to a report in Scotland on Sunday today, Kenny MacAskill, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, believes that it is “inevitable” that Scotland’s local authorities and health boards will have to be consolidated.

“Speaking at the International Policing Conference in Edinburgh last week, MacAskill was asked by David Strang, chief constable of Lothian and Borders, if it was right that Scotland could move to one police force, but continue to have 32 local authorities and 15 health boards.

MacAskill replied: “These things are inevitable. Scotland has to address these things and we have to take wider stakeholders with us.

“Where the police are, where they have gone, I think some of my colleagues will look to learn from.

“The status quo is not tenable. It was not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life.”

If anyone who was at the conference recorded the exchange on a “spypen” or similar, I would be grateful for a transcript. It should be noted that the Scottish government has said that it has “no plans to merge local authorities“.

This instinct for centralisation is not unique to MacAskill (a politician whom I like and admire) but is shared by many Labour and Tory politicians down the years. Labour was responsible for the abolition of local government in 1975 (“local government” has been a misnomer ever since) and the Conservatives were responsible for the creation of Scotland’s existing unitary authorities in 1996. Community Councils it should be noted are not “local government” since they do not govern, have no statutory requirement even to exist, and have no financial powers. They were a sop introduced in the 1973 Local Government Act to appease widespread anger at the abolition of Town Councils.

One might go further back. The Officers of Burghs Act 1469 abolished direct elections in Scotland’s Royal Burghs.

“As touching the election of aldermen, bailies and other officers of burghs, because of the great disturbance and contention each year for the choosing of the same through the multitude and clamour of common simple persons, it is thought expedient that neither officers nor council be continued according to the king’s laws of burghs for more than a year, and that the choosing of the new officers occur in this manner: that is to say, that the old town council shall choose the new council in such number as is suits the town, and the new council and the old one of the previous year shall choose all officers pertaining to the town, such as aldermen, bailies, dean of guild and other officers…”

Protests by the inhabitants that Councils were failing to hold the statutory annual elections were addressed by an Act that, rather than enforcing the “King’s law of burghs“, abolished it altogether. From 1469 until 1833, Scotland’s Burgh councils were chosen by the outgoing town council. This led to rampant nepotism and corruption which only came to an end following the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1833. Accounts of the affairs in Scotland’s burghs are laid out in some detail in the 1835 Royal Commission report into the Municipal Corporations of Scotland and treated to a searing satire in John Galt’s The Provost published in 1822.

The high watermark of Scotland’s municipal institutions was probably around 1870 – 1910 when Scotland’s cities and Burghs enjoyed substantial political and fiscal autonomy. In 1975, Scotland’s system of local government that had remained little changed for centuries was abolished and a whole tier of elected councils was eliminated. As a consequence of this single Act, Scotland now stands apart from every other country in Europe in having no local government.

The history can be illustrated by the example of Fife

Years Councils Total No. Councils
to 1894 26 Town Councils 26
1894 – 1930 1 County, 56 Parishes & 25 Town Councils 82
1930 – 1975 1 County, 7 Landward Districts & 25 Town Councils 33
1975 – 1996 1 Regional Council & 3 District Councils 4
1996 to today 1 Unitary Authority 1
Future 0 ?

The trend is clear.

Today, in response to the Scotland on Sunday report, I published a series of tweets illustrating what local government looks like in other European countries. The data and a simple guide to the functions of the different tiers of government are abstracted from Local and regional Government Structures in Europe. Structures and Competences published by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions earlier this year. The following table shows data for the lowest tier of local government across Europe for selected countries and is sorted by “Mean Municipality Population”. (1)

Country Number of municipalities Population Mean Municipality population Municipality average sq km
France 36700 6,3983,000 1743 15
Switzerland 2551 7,593,490 2977 16
Austria 2357 8,318,590 3529 35
Spain 8186 45,283,260 5543 62
Estonia 226 1,340,940 5933 200
Malta 68 410,290 6034  5
Germany 11481 82,217,840 7161  30
Italy 8094 56,619,290 7366  37
Norway 430 4,737,170 11017  721
Finland 336 5,300,480 15775  1001
Belgium 589 10,666,870 18110  51
Latvia 119 2,270,890 19083  543
Sweden 290 9,182,930 31665  1453
Netherlands 418 16,405,400 39247  97
Denmark 98 5,472,090 55838  418
Lithuania 60 3,366,360 56106  1088
England 353 56,100,000 158924  381
Scotland 32 5,254,800 164213  2450

What this table shows is that Scotland is the least democratic country in Europe – a conclusion that stands even if you include every country in the EU or indeed every country in continental Europe. It has the largest population (per lowest tier of local government) covering the largest geographic area.

Countries of similar population have far more councils. Norway has 430, Finland has 336 and Denmark has 98. Countries that are a similar geographic size to Scotland also have a denser network of councils. Latvia has 119, Lithuania 60 and Austria 2357.

The recent report by the Jimmy Reid Foundation – The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland – examines in considerable detail the impact this disparity has had on Scottish democracy (including the impact on voting turnout – where Scotland again is bottom of the league). To understand the scale of the crisis this report is a must-read.

The arguments for greater local democracy have been articulated in recent years by a growing number of people.

The Christie Commission concluded that

7.37 At the same time, we saw evidence which demonstrated that Scotland has the lowest number of local councils among European countries of similar population size, This suggests that it is the joining up of discrete service functions at a local level rather than the number of discrete council areas that is the key issue.

If we look at other European countries with comparable populations (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, etc.), they have at least 3 times the number of councils we have, and in some cases more than 6 times. As importantly, these small councils are running a complex array of services (community health, social care, schools, local policing) and often raising the bulk of their income through local taxation.

And commentators as diverse as Lesley Riddoch, Alex Massie, Alf Young and Brian Monteith have all argued that  local democracy is not working for the benefit of the people of Scotland.

A recent House of Commons committee report on the balance of power between central and local government in England noted that

The relationship between central and local government in England deviates from the European norm in at least three areas – the level of constitutional protection,(2) the level of financial autonomy, and the level of central government intervention. All serve to tilt the balance of power towards the centre.” (para38)

In a future blog I will propose a new scheme of local government in Scotland. Meanwhile, the question we need to address is why is Scotland the least democratic country in Europe and why do we have such difficulty imagining that we could devise arrangements more closely aligned to the European norm?


(1) Data derived from Local and regional Government Structures in Europe. Structures and Competences and Eurostat, Population and social conditions 31/2009.

(2) For an analysis of the constitutional status of local government across Europe, see this report prepared by Central Research Unit of the Scottish Office in 1998. This is an important issue. In Germany, for example, Angela Merkel would be unable to enter a Federal election promising a German equivalent of the council tax freeze as this would breach Article 28 of the german Constitution which entrenches the fiscal autonomy of the Lander and Municipalities.


  1. Nothing quite as powerful as a visual image. However, it probably isn’t that simple.

    You’ve quoted a tiny part of Campbell’s report, “7.37 At the same time, we saw evidence which demonstrated that Scotland has the lowest number of local councils among European countries of similar population size, This suggests that it is the joining up of discrete service functions at a local level rather than the number of discrete council areas that is the key issue.”

    Is he not suggesting that localism can be achieved regardless of scale of the Local Authorities? He was a keen exponent of the correctly executed Community Planning process. Note CORRECTLY EXECUTED.

    • Well, the Report is making a suggestion – a supposition. Closer examination suggests that smaller-scale delivers precisely this “joining up” and greater flexibility & efficiency. For example, Norway has 430 municipalities which are responsible for fire and rescue. Some choose to operate joint services and so the total number of fire and rescue services is 375. Last year I was in Norway and spoke to Chief Exec of kommune who told me that a new tunnel that had been built meant that it was more effective for his kommune to deliver the service. A plan and joint approval were reached a year ahead of the tunnel opening and was operational on the day the tunnel opened. Smaller units can be more easily configured rather like a box of lego with 450 pieces provides far more flexibility that a box with 32 pieces.

  2. Subsidiarity is the key principle in all of this.

  3. Thanks for this. It makes interesting reading and gives lost of food for thought. Look forward to the next blog and your proposals.

  4. It is not simply a matter of numbers. As well as the lack of local government, there is the question of powers and autonomy.

    Before I was elected in 1999, a friend described the powers of a council as ‘only allowed to do what central government tells them to do – and then it’s compulsory’. It was slightly a joke – but generally accurate. Since then little has changed except that councils now no longer have any power over finance worth having. So the job of councillors is now to do central government bidding and carry the can for cuts in services.
    Let’s set a few principles out.

    1. If it can be done by a smaller unit, then let it be so. But allow smaller units to voluntarily band together for some or all functions if they so choose. And choice does not involve central government ‘persuasion’ with or without a gun to the head.

    2. Generally, each unit should be able to raise at least half the money it spends from taxation – preferably from more than once source (income, sales, property, …. ). There should be a system of equalisation grants so that areas that are less able to raise funds or by virtue of geography have excessive cost in providing services, can deliver a standard level of service to all its citizens. National taxes will need to come down dramatically to allow this.

    3. Minimum national standards are fine – but central government must provide the resources to meet those minimum standards. Can we ban ‘postcode lottery’ as a phrase?

    I am sure there are more – but those are my top three for decent locally accountable government.

    • I agree with all of that which reflects broadly the situation in many European countries with regard to financial autonomy and constitutional protection.

  5. Local authorities in Scotland have a tradition of acting like UK governments with their usual top down attitude. We have a tier of local government missing, the municipalities, and the only people we must appeal to are the people of Scotland to stand up and to take over their own communities. More statutory powers the Scottish Government is giving to Community Councils and less community councillors are coming forward, this is the problem we must all address.

  6. All of that is completely correct. Scotland’s communities badly need to be be in charge of themselves, and all manner of ills come from the current system.

    But the politicians don’t have a choice.

    The electorate would not accept the creation of an entire tier of government now, especially a broad bottom level. Bureaucracy, wasted resources, creating more petty politicians… it’s an absolute non-starter. All right-of-centre newspapers – which is pretty much all of them now – would have a field day. And in the middle of this economic turbulence, too, it’s just not going to happen.

    It’s painful to know that you’re right and most are wrong, but that’s democracy for you. In the end, the people get the government they deserve.

    • If the existing councils were co-operative councils – ie engaging all relevant stakeholders in respective service delivery it may help? Increasing capacity in the skills required to do so is a prerequisite.

  7. I look forward to your proposals for local government, and will be interested in how they relate to the “Localism” proposals of the recent Liberal Democrat commission (http://scotlibdems.org.uk/files/Chapter%20four.pdf), which seems to fit with much of what you argue for here. It’s obviously weak in only recommending an opt-in scheme for establishing burgh councils (recommendation 49), but perhaps that’s a politically acceptable way to get change started.

  8. Another nuance regarding the Fife analysis is that even after the district councils and regional council were amalgamated into the unitary authority an element of greater localism was retained by having committees and administrative functions like licensing retained at the old district council level, for example the Fife (East) licensing area administered from Cupar, which was effectively the old NE Fife District Council area, as far as I know.

    However, more recently these functions have been consolidated at the Fife Council level in Glenrothes.

    Not saying whether this is a good or a bad thing, but perhaps worth adding to your analysis.

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