READER, grab a pen and a piece of paper. Now, write down the names of all your local authority councillors. Go on, I dare you. Can’t do it? Don’t feel ashamed. A large portion of my day job involves working in politics, and I couldn’t do it either.
Indeed, I could not even be certain, without the assistance of Google or Wikipedia, how many councillors represent me in my multi-member ward. And, I am sorry to say, I am only perhaps fifty per cent certain what the ward is actually called.
I am not an unusual creature in that respect. People all over the country would struggle to name their local councillors, unless they had happened to have a personal interaction with them. With almost exactly three months to go until we elect our local authorities for the next five years, we should take this as a warning that all is not well in our local democracy.
In this country, our awareness of our local representatives is, in fact, inversely proportional to the everyday value of the work they do. Almost all of you reading this article will, I am sure, know your MP and your MSP, even if you, like me, are at a loss to name your councillors. However, as you go about your lives today, the issues which are most likely to affect you have nothing to do with your MP or MSP.
If you leave the house this morning to find your bin has not been collected, there is nothing your MP can do about that – it’s a job for one of your councillors. If your bicycle wheel gets buckled by a pothole on your way to work, there is little point in complaining to your MSP – it’s a job for one of your councillors. If you’re unhappy about the performance of your child’s school, don’t address your letter to a parliament – it’s a job for the elected representatives at your town hall or city chambers.
Education, transport, planning, leisure services, the local environment, waste management, the local economy and, for the moment at least, social care. All services which affect our day-to-day lives in a far more meaningful way, frankly, than those presided over by the better known representatives at Holyrood and Westminster. And yet, we have nothing like the depth of knowledge of our councillors, their views or their work, compared to that of their parliamentary colleagues.
There are a series of reasons why it has come to this, and there are a series of consequences. However, happily, there is also a solution.
The key reason, I would contend, that we tend towards unfamiliarity with our local representatives is that the devolutionary process of the last two decades stopped when it reached Edinburgh. Holyrood has had a significant degree of power devolved to it from Westminster (not enough, I would argue, although that is for another column), but there has been next-to-no similar devolution to local authorities.
In part, that is a reflection on the wealth of powers they already have, some of which I have listed. However, more so it is the failure to devolve financial responsibility to local authorities which has proved to be most corrosive. Not only has no further tax-raising power been devolved, but those levers local authorities have had have been retracted; business rates is a local tax in name only, with rates set centrally, and council tax has, for much of devolution, been subject to a centrally controlled cap.
Local authorities are largely there to spend money rather than to raise it. There becomes a domino effect. When all they can do is spend, the differentiation between the political parties is vastly reduced; as a result the consequences of electing one councillor or another, from one party or another, are largely indistinguishable; as a result turnout is lower than at national elections and recognition of, and interest in, who are our local representatives wanes considerably.
Part of that vicious cycle is remuneration for councillors. The people you elect in three months to run your vital services will be paid less than £20,000 per year. That the salary makes being a councillor a part-time job is not necessarily the problem – indeed, councillors having other employment in their local area should be seen as a positive contributor to their understanding of our lives.
That the salary makes being a councillor an unattractive part-time job is far more concerning; councillors work far harder, and far longer, than the remuneration suggests, and the inevitable consequence is to reduce the pool of talent from which we as voters can choose.
It need not be this way. There are a series of ways in which we can reinvigorate local government in Scotland. The medicine will, in some cases, be hard to swallow. One aspect of it is taxation. As is the case at all levels of government, sound financial management demands that councils be given responsibility for raising much more of what they spend. That, in my view, means allowing them to choose not only how much they tax, but also how they tax, be it in the form of a property tax such as Council Tax, a land tax, a local income tax, a local sales tax, a local business tax or indeed a mix of all of those.
In alliance with offering more substantial remuneration (I would suggest doubling the salary to over £35,000), this ‘bing bang’ approach would at a stroke give us all the skin in the game that we need to make local elections matter.
So let’s start with tax. But let’s not stop there. Let’s allow councils to help solve the deep problems in Scotland’s schooling. Perhaps they would cluster their schools and have them run by community groups, charities or the private sector; or they may be more comfortable with funding individual schools but have them run independently.
Let’s assess whether aspects of healthcare may follow.
And let’s raise the level of importance and clout of local authorities by allowing people to elect a mayor with the responsibility and accountability to make a real difference to real lives.
As we stand, these elections don’t mean much. It needn’t be that way.
• Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters