c-back.gif (1323 bytes)
  
  


Local Government

3rd Report 2000

Issues arising from the McIntosh Report

  
    
SP Paper 73

Session 1 (2000)

The Local Government Committee reports to the Parliament as follows—

 

INTRODUCTION

  1. The Committee welcomes the Report of the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament (The McIntosh Report).

  2. The Committee also wishes to reaffirm its commitment to local government as an accountable tier of governance with democratic legitimacy. It also wishes to take this opportunity to put on public record its acknowledgement of the key role played by local government both in the provision of services to citizens and in promoting the involvement of citizens in the democratic process.

  3. Committee consideration of McIntosh

  4. Over the period from November 1999 to February 2000 the reporters from the Committee visited 15 councils in all parts of Scotland, to discuss the implications arising from the McIntosh Report. Through these visits the Committee noted resonances on key issues which tended to be reflected across many different types of council – rural, urban and island – and, to a large extent, across all political parties and indeed among non-aligned councils. Those resonances have, as far as possible, been reflected in this report.

  5. The Committee wishes to acknowledge the time, effort and other resources which councils put in to making these visits so useful.

  6. The Local Government Committee considered the McIntosh Report (1) and the Executive’s response to the McIntosh Report at meetings on 1 September, 15 September, 21 September, 29 September, 5 October, 27 October and 10 November 1999, and 17 January and 1 February 2000.

    (1)
    Moving Forward: Local Government and the Scottish Parliament – The Report of the Commission on Local Government on the Scottish Parliament, The Scottish Executive, June 1999


  7. The Committee took evidence from Wendy Alexander, (Minister for Communities), Mr Jack McConnell (Minister for Finance), Mr Frank McAveety (Deputy Minister for Local Government), Kenneth Ritchie, James Gilmour and Peter Facey (Electoral Reform Society), Professor John Curtice (Department of Government, University of Strathclyde), and Richard Kerley (Chair of the Renewing Local Democracy working group).

  8. The Committee received private briefings from the Accounts Commission, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, Unison, Neil McIntosh, Professor Arthur Midwinter and the Scottish Executive.

  9. The Committee carried out visits to Aberdeen City Council, Clackmannanshire Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council, East Lothian Council, East Renfrewshire Council, Glasgow City Council, Highland Council, North Lanarkshire Council, Perth and Kinross Council, Shetland Islands Council, South Lanarkshire Council, Scottish Borders Council, South Ayrshire Council, Stirling Council and Western Isles Council to probe council members and senior officers on their responses to core questions submitted to them by the Committee on the issues arising from the McIntosh Report, and received responses to the core questions from the remaining councils which were not visited.

  10.  

    CONCLUSIONS

    Local Government Finance

  11. The Committee is disappointed that the Executive has rejected the McIntosh Report’s recommendation that there should be an independent review of local government finance. The Committee backs the unanimous view of the 32 councils that a major review of the system of local government finance is urgently required in the best interests of local government in Scotland. (2) The Committee has agreed to urge the Executive to commission an independent review of local government finance. It has further agreed that, should the Executive not agree to an independent review of local government finance, the Committee will consider how best it can conduct its own review, using the resources available. The Committee notes the interest of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) in this matter, and recognises that COSLA may be able to contribute towards the cost of a review by the Local Government Committee. However, the Committee is resolved that any review must be seen to be independent of COSLA.

    (2)
    Keith Harding MSP dissented.

  12. The Committee received many comments on the matter of hypothecation (or ring-fencing) during its visits to councils. The Committee recognises the tension between the priorities of the Executive and those of local government. The Committee acknowledges the right of the centre to hypothecate or ring-fence specific grants to help achieve its objectives, and recognises that a range of initiatives, including childcare projects and measures to support victims of domestic violence, might otherwise never have materialised in some areas. However, the Committee is also concerned over claims made by councils that, increasingly, hypothecated allocations are made through ‘top-slicing’ GAE. Councils argue that this ‘over-prescription’ distorts councils’ spending priorities and creates funding gaps for core services.

  13. The Committee also received some comments about challenge funding. While a number of councils indicated that they were pleased to have been successful in bidding for challenge funding, there were concerns, particularly among smaller councils with lower levels of staffing resources, over the sometimes disproportionate efforts required to bid for relatively small sums of money.

  14. The Committee believes that these two matters are small examples of matters concerned with the detailed operation of local government finance, which could be opened up to wider consideration through an independent review of local government finance.

  15. Electoral Reform

    Voting systems

  16. The Committee recognises that there are divergent views, both within the Committee and among the councils, on the merits of different voting systems. The Committee has agreed to defer its conclusions on voting systems until the recommendations of the Renewing Local Democracy group, under the Chairmanship of Richard Kerley, are known.

  17. Term of Office

  18. The Committee is agreed that the term of office for councils in Scotland should be four years.

  19. Timing of Elections

  20. The Committee acknowledges that there are different views on the question of whether or not local government elections should be held on the same day as those for the Scottish Parliament. It is argued by those in favour that holding local government elections on the same day as Scottish Parliamentary elections will lead to a higher turnout and a degree of interaction and co-ordination between the Parliament and local government which will enhance local government. It is also argued that elections on the same day will prevent councillors being ‘punished’ unfairly as voters protest in the mid-term of an unpopular UK government or Scottish Executive. On the other hand it is argued by those against that elections on the same day will mean that local government issues will be marginalised in relation to the Parliamentary elections, and will not receive the degree of media coverage which would be the case if the elections were held at a different time.

  21. The Committee has not reached consensus on this question.

  22. Innovative methods of voting

  23. The Committee is fully in support of innovative forms of voting including electronic voting, and welcomes proposals to widen the range of polling places. The Committee welcomes proposals for rolling registers, improvements to systems of postal voting and other initiatives in the Representation of the People Bill currently being progressed through the House of Commons.

  24. Boundaries Commission

  25. The Committee is of the view that the Boundaries Commission should be more flexible to take more account of natural communities, and should allow a greater percentage variation in the number of electors in a ward. However the Committee recognises that full consideration of boundaries issues cannot be usefully undertaken until it is known when the next council elections will be, under which system they will be conducted, and how many members will be elected. In that sense, issues connected with the operation of the Boundaries Commission may be the last piece in a complex jigsaw.

  26. Power of General Competence

  27. The Committee notes that the 32 councils were unanimously in favour of the granting of a power of general competence to councils. It notes that councils claim that the lack of a power of general competence inhibits the action which they are able to take in relation to community planning and limits the extent to which they can enter into formal partnership agreements. The Committee also recognises that resources are used by councils in the process of establishing whether or not they have the statutory powers to take action which they have agreed to.

  28. The Committee also notes the symbolic value embodied in a power of general competence, which is seen by councils as representing the esteem in which local government should be held. The Committee also recognises the democratic legitimacy of councils in relation to partnership arrangements with other public bodies, and broadly supports the proposals for powers to oblige local public bodies to co-operate formally with councils in partnerships for community planning and other appropriate projects.

  29. The overwhelming view of the Committee is that the case for a power of general competence has been adequately made by local government (3) and consequently it supports the proposal for legislation to introduce such a power.

    (3)
    Keith Harding MSP dissented.

     

  30. Executive arrangements

    Directly elected leaders

  31. The Committee questioned councils on proposals for directly elected leaders, and found that they were overwhelmingly against the idea, arguing that it would be dangerous to concentrate power in one individual and that it would weaken the role of ordinary councillors. The Committee considers overwhelmingly that directly elected leaders are not appropriate for Scottish councils, although one member felt that, at the very least, the position should be held open, and that councils should be free to pursue that route.

  32. Executive or cabinet systems of local government

  33. The Committee considered the potential for the introduction of cabinet systems, and visited East Renfrewshire, where such a system has recently been introduced. The Committee recognises the merits of the Executive system as practised in East Renfrewshire, but does not believe that it would be appropriate for all councils. It considers that, some councils are arguably too large for an executive system to work properly, and that the adoption of such a system could lead to the diminution of the role of ‘back bench’ councillors. Moreover, under the present electoral arrangements, some councils do not have a large enough opposition to carry out adequately the scrutiny role.

  34. The Committee concluded that cabinet or executive systems are probably more appropriate in smaller councils where there is a reasonably sized opposition group which is prepared to participate in such a system. It also noted that an executive model would need to have guarantees of accessibility and accountability. However the Committee does not believe that cabinet systems should be imposed, and considers that councils should be free to determine their own management arrangements in the light of local circumstances. The Committee also notes that management arrangements need to be considered alongside schemes of decentralised operation and decision making.

  35. The Committee notes that the Leadership Advisory Panel is in place to advise councils on their internal review of management arrangements, which is due to be completed by the end of 2000. The Committee considers that it cannot reach a view on the role of the Leadership Advisory Panel until it hears the views of councils about the work of the panel.

  36. Widening council membership

  37. The Committee recognises the need for effort and innovation to involve young people, women and others not traditionally represented on councils.

  38. The Committee has also considered in detail the question of whether or not council employees should be permitted to stand for election. It recognises that at present there are around 200,000 people who, as employees, are debarred from standing for election to their local council. While the Committee acknowledges that employees may stand for election to neighbouring councils, in many areas geography makes this impractical. Moreover, since the last re-organisation there is no longer an opportunity for employees in one tier of local government to become councillors in another. The Committee considers that these rules potentially prevent many people standing and being elected as councillors, and lead to a democratic deficit.

  39. The Committee is overwhelmingly of the view that the bar on employees standing as councillors should be examined and, where possible, removed. However, it is recognised that, before any removal of the bar, safeguards would need to be in place to ensure that there were no conflicts of interest and that employees and their managers were not put in invidious positions. For example, it would not be appropriate for councillors who were also employees to take part in discussions or negotiations concerning their salaries and conditions of service. There would also need to be some rules about which levels of employees within the council’s organisational structure would be permitted to stand. Although the Committee has not considered this in detail, its initial position is that senior managers and heads of service and above should not be permitted to be councillors. One member of the Committee holds a contrary view that it is neither appropriate nor practical for employees to take part in many decisions, for example on budgets and declarations of council tax, and, while employees should be permitted to stand, they should be required to resign if elected.

  40. Remuneration and Participation

  41. The Committee considers that the present scheme for remuneration of councillors is inadequate. The Committee recognises that the number of councillors in Scotland has fallen by about 400 since the last reorganisation, with a corresponding increase in workload. The Committee overwhelmingly rejects the proposal that remuneration of councillors can only be improved by a corresponding reduction in the number of councillors. The Committee believes that adequate levels of remuneration are necessary in order to attract a sufficiently high calibre of candidate to stand for election to councils, and to allow the possibility of people having a full time job as a councillor. At the same time, the Committee recognises that there should continue to be scope for part time councillors where this is appropriate. In this respect, the Committee calls on employers to continue, wherever possible, to grant their employees time off for council duties in line with the provisions of the Employment Rights Act 1996. The Committee hopes that the Renewing Democracy group will, in due course, make realistic proposals for the pay and conditions of councillors.

  42. Mechanisms for developing the relationship between Local Government and the Parliament, the Executive and the Local Government Committee

  43. The Committee believes that local government should be considered on a basis of equality with the Parliament, recognising its democratic mandate. The Committee is concerned that present financial arrangements including ‘hypothecation’ limit the scope which councils have for taking action to meet the needs of their population. In particular, evidence from visits to rural councils including Scottish Borders Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council and Highland Council suggested that councils are experiencing difficulties in meeting the local population’s expectations on the condition of roads and footways. It is suggested that this issue might be addressed as part of a review of local government finance. The Committee recognises that financial issues are not the only ones facing councils, and believes that there needs to be full and frank discussion between representatives of councils and the Parliament on all issues of concern to both local government and the Parliament.

  44. The Committee welcomes recent dialogue on the development of the covenant with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

  45. Developing Civic Education

  46. The Committee recognises that community councils have a role to play in promoting local democracy and developing civic education. At the same time, the Committee also recognises a role for area forums, youth councils and other organisations designed to promote active citizenship. Although the Committee has not yet taken evidence from organisations representing community councils, it recognises the argument about inadequate funding of community councils, and recommends that consideration is given to the mechanisms and levels of funding for community councils. The Committee also notes from its programme of visits the efforts by councils, including Highland, East Lothian and Stirling, to improve levels of funding and other resources for community councils.

  47. Although some members of the Committee believe that community councils are being systematically undermined by initiatives such as citizens’ juries, others are concerned that there is public disillusionment with some community councils, which are perceived as being out of touch and unrepresentative. Discussion which took place during the visits to councils led the Committee to the view that consideration should be given to training for members of community councils.

  48. The Committee applauds the efforts of schools and community education services around the country in developing initiatives to promote civic education. The Committee also welcomes the involvement and participation of young people in managing and running local youth clubs and community centres where this has happened.

  49. Finally, the Committee recognises the need to use established structures, like community councils, for gathering information, but also recognises the validity of alternative ways of gathering information where these are appropriate. The Committee supports co-operative models of decision making at a local level, but acknowledges that those models are hard to put in place and are not strongly established in many parts of the country.

  50.  

    CONCLUDING REMARKS

  51. The Committee welcomes the debate on the future of local government in Scotland, and anticipates a continuing debate between councils, COSLA, the Executive, the Local Government Committee and civic Scotland on the issues raised by this report over the coming period. The Committee also anticipates the report of the Renewing Local Democracy group and the self review of council management structures taking place over the remainder of the year.

  52. The Committee is unanimously agreed that the role of local government is a crucial one, both in promoting local democracy and in delivering services, and it would like again to take this opportunity of reaffirming its commitment both to the relationship between the Parliament and local government, and to local government itself.

     
 
 
c-back.gif (1323 bytes)