Musselburgh Town Council

The 2013 COSLA & Improvement Service conference might yet go down in history as a historic event. Opening the conference yesterday, COSLA President Councillor David O’Neill, laid out a future vision for local government which is a radical departure from the business as usual approach and creeping centralisation of the past few decades.

“Scotland post the referendum should not have higher and lower levels of government, one of which has the ability to rule the roost over the other. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we will have a new situation for public services in Scotland and it is inconceivable that either of the possible settlements at a national level will not have enormous consequences for provision at a local level.

“I believe that whatever the outcome of the referendum in 2014, a way can be found that so fundamentally embeds local government in the ‘constitution’ that its status would be fundamentally altered.

“It angers me that when we look to Scandinavia and other countries to see how they manage what is deemed to be a better level of local public service we miss the fundamental point.

“In those countries there are more councils, elected councillors represent fewer people, and these councils and services are constitutionally protected with their funding being secure.”

In these few sentences Mr O’Neill captures the critical difference between Scottish local government and other European countries (see previous blog), namely the level of constitutional protection, the degree of financial autonomy, and the degrees and levels of local democracy.

Today, Nicola Sturgeon announced that the SNP would be arguing for the rights of local government to be enshrined in a written constitution in the event of a Yes vote in 2014.

“I can announce today we will also argue for Scotland’s Constitution to guarantee the status and rights of local government.  The role of Scottish local authorities should be entrenched in a written Constitution – a democratic settlement that only independence offers.

Such constitutional protection is mainstream in developed democracies such as Germany, Denmark, and Sweden – once again, it is the UK which is the exception.   We believe this should also be the case in a modern, independent Scotland – and I look forward to having productive discussions on further details with representatives and champions of local government in Scotland.”

This is a very welcome statement. The constitutional status of local government was the subject of research by the Scottish Office 15 years ago in 1998 but nothing has changed since. At present the UK and Scottish Parliaments both have the power to abolish local government. In the past they have done so with impunity. In 1930 parish councils were abolished. In 1975 Town Councils were wound up and in 1996 the Regions and Districts were done away. The centralisation of governance has been underway for many decades. In 1895, in an introduction to the Handbook to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1894 (which introduced elected parish councils), the author wrote

“The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1894 has reformed the constitution of the bodies set up … in 1845 … and has placed them in such relations towards governing bodies of wider range as to suggest to the legislator of the future that completion of a scheme of graded representative institutions, ascending from the parish council through the town and county council to the great assembly of the nation in Parliament.”

Unfortunately, since then, this graded representation has been systematically destroyed as illustrated in the table below which shows the elimination of local government in 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 ?

In countries like Germany this would be far more difficult since the Länder, Counties and Communes are protected by Article 28 (Self-Government) of the German Constitution which also guarantees their financial autonomy. Margaret Curran, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland gave a thoughtful speech at the end of the day and announced that Labour’s Devolution Commission “is looking in detail at this, and we will have more to say in the coming months.” (1)

When Angela Merkel goes to the polls later this year she would be acting unlawfully were she to try and to curry favour with the electorate by making promises about the level of local taxes in her home city of Hamburg. In Scotland, by contrast, the SNP and Labour have blatantly compromised the autonomy of local government by promising council tax freezes in Musselburg and Jedburg which they do not have the legal power to deliver.

Might we look back in ten years and see this COSLA conference as the turning point in the relentless march of centralised power?

(1) it is interesting to note that both Nicola Sturgeon and Margaret Curran gave speeches that were relevant to the audience and to the future of local government in Scotland. Alistair Darling’s speech, by contrast, was simply a campaign speech on behalf of Better Together.


  1. COSLA is the historic successor to the Convention of Royal Burghs, which was also wound up in 1975. Their records began in 1552, but long before that there was ample evidence of concerted action by the burghs. Despite its long history, the parliament of the burghs was a weak instrument politically against the powers that ruled the land, as was evidenced when it opposed the union of 1707 and was disregarded and in 1975 when the Wheatley report wound it up apparently without a whimper.

  2. A further assault on citizen rights: This time to be sanctioned by the Scottish parliament. Scotland is an instinctively authoritarian country. Aye been. We delude ourselves by thinking otherwise.

    • I don’t see what is authoritarian about this. The Council is a democratically elected body as is the Scottish Parliament.

  3. Stuart Wilshaw

    Genuine local government is something we desperately need. Unitary authorities are cumbersome slow to respond and in many instances unrepresentative of their areas.

    I was a delegate at the CES (Community Energy Scotland) conference in Perth towards the end of last year (2012). There was a presentation by someone from Belgium who was outlining some European competition which meant involving our ‘local councilors’, he seemed genuinely unable to comprehend that in Scotland we really didn’t have them. In Belgium and other EU countries they do have them, know who they are and can access them when they need to.

    If we can get back to real local government and accountability it will be real progress.

  4. I think it will take further electoral reform of local government STV is pretty crude and suffers from the tyranny of the alphabet. Also it will take a generation of cultural and political change to get the Government to gove up power and local councillors ready to take power.

  5. County councils were set up by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 (not 1894) to absorb the functions of county roads trusts, commissioners of supply, justices of the peace and certain functions of smaller burghs. The parish councils set up by the LG(S) Act 1894 were really just reconstitutions with some extra powers of the Poor Law parochial boards which had existed since 1845. Don’t forget also the significance of the separate parish school boards since 1872 which were amalgamated as county education authorities in 1918.

    The point is that your grid needs some amendment to clarify that were a lot more organs of local government in Fife prior to 1894 than just 26 Town Councils and (more importantly) that the process of amalgamation (“systematic destruction”) of these organs in fact began in 1889.

    I live in a municipality in Portugal, Lajes das Flores with a population of 1,500. Angela Merkel – Nossa Senhora de Austeridade as she’s known in this country – may be constitutionally barred in Germany but it doesn’t prevent her abroad in as much that high on the list of the Troika’s conditions of Portugal’s bail out is reduction of the number of municipalities. Despite being the second smallest in the country, I expect LdF to survive due to it being a fragile and remote community (região ultraperiférica in Portuguese).

    • Thank you for pointing out the error re the 1889 Act. I have corrected the text. Did not know about the bailout conditions – v. interesting.

  6. Stuart Wilshaw

    We have a community council which covers about four villages and those folk with ability who would sit on local councils if they had teeth and did represent their towns and villages regard it as a bit of a joke.

    The EU or some of its residents (Merkel et al) need reminding of the principal of subsidiarity, that is if something can be done better locally it should be. I think where local governance is concerned we shouldn’t be telling our neighbors how to manage their affairs if that method meets with the acceptance of the people.

    • Somewhat ironic that we keep being told that the Europeans do local government better than we do yet their attachment to it must be only skin deep if they can make it a bail out condition that numbers of municipalities be “substantially” reduced!

  7. Stuart Wilshaw

    Seems to be the politicians who want to reduce representation and the people who want to increase it. Could it have something to do with accessibility and accountability?

    I mentioned to a friend a while back the ineffectiveness of our community council and the need to ‘ginger it up’ a bit. He said if I wanted to try ‘they’ could probably get me elected but that I would be bashing mt head against the wall as they always followed the county line regardless.