In one Scottish city, a portfolio of iconic public buildings is re-financed to settle a decades-old equal pay dispute; in another, a radical programme to prioritise cycling and walking over cars forges ahead against bitter opposition. In the west-coast commuter belt, a new policy of community wealth building tries to take root. In the remote Highlands, a Short Term Let Control Area is piloted in response to a chronic shortage of affordable housing that is driving out young people.
While coverage of local elections looks for swings and trends that can reveal the popularity of competing parties (mistaking them for something akin to the US midterms) the vital issues that councils grapple with daily receive scant attention from pundits.
Part of the reason for this disparity is surely that, despite its oft-repeated social democratic aspirations, Scotland operates one of the most centralised states in Europe. As a result, local elections serve as a mere proxy for more important contests.
Viewed from the perspective of Scotland’s main parties, the results of Scotland’s local elections last week represent a limited re-alignment of political fortunes.
But a focus on headline results obscures an ongoing, and seemingly intractable, crisis within local government in Scotland. Across much of the country, local democracy is neither particularly local nor particularly democratic.
Despite the use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) since 2007, the majority of voters in Scotland do not participate in council elections. Some wards record derisory turnouts of less than 30 per cent. A long-term relative disinterest in local government contests can be seen in figures that are well below equivalent turnout rates across Europe, and have been for decades.
Such alienation is in turn reflected in the calibre and range of the candidates. While each and every one of the matters debated in council chambers are vital to the future direction of Scottish society, they are mostly overseen by councillors on salaries of £19,591—less than the real living wage of £9.90 per hour.
For this meagre sum, councillors are asked to enter the bearpit of abuse and harassment so prevalent in contemporary digital politics. At the same time they must attend to the unremitting work of responding to complaints about service delivery while budgets continue to contract and demand increases.
This uninviting job description creates multiple problems for the cause of local representation. The shortage of candidates was so acute in some areas that eight seats went uncontested, such as Inverclyde East, Shetland North and Buckie in Moray.
While many councillors bring passion and dedication to the role, others are simply there to show that they can serve their time on the lower rungs of a party machine before graduating to more lucrative roles at Holyrood or Westminster. With rates of pay so low, many councillors struggle to manage their public duties alongside the second jobs they have to do to make ends meet.
These realities belie the image of a progressive and inclusive nation projected by the Scottish government. One unalloyed positive that emerged from last week’s vote was the election of two women councillors in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, a council where the chamber had been an all-male domain since 2012.
Reform of Scotland’s old patchwork system of burgh and county councils in 1975 introduced a two-tier system of regional and district authorities. The current unitary authority system, introduced in 1996, squashed these two tiers into a single system that still resulted in an odd-mix of uniformity and incoherence. This left Scotland with the largest local authorities in Europe.
This is why Highland Council, governing an area the size of Belgium with the population of a medium-sized city (at around 235,000), operates the same levers as Clackmannanshire, which has a landmass of 61 square miles and a population of 51,000. These disparities have led some experts to contend that “local” government is simply a misnomer in Scotland.
After decades of bad blood between local authorities and a Tory-led Scottish Office prior to devolution, it was hoped that the new Scottish parliament would offer further reforms of local government. At the very least, a less volatile means of agreeing funding settlements seemed feasible.
This has demonstrably not been the case. UK-wide austerity and the SNP’s council tax freeze, coupled with the Scottish government’s failure to make good on promises to reform local taxation (including ignoring the recommendations of its own commission in 2016) have left councils with an ever-more limited field of action. These constraints have been compounded by a tendency to ring-fence funding from central government in order to deliver on national policy commitments.
For a generation born and raised in the devolution years, a better, closer democracy always seemed to be on the cusp of fulfilment. Some of those young people will soon be taking up their seats in town halls across Scotland. That many will do so only to realise power lies elsewhere is nothing less than a betrayal of the democratic hopes and dreams that birthed the modern nation.