SNP candidate Danus Skene has defended his party’s record after Labour and the Liberal Democrats claimed the Scottish government is hell-bent on destroying local democracy and has an “obsession” with removing powers from the northern isles.
Shetland Lib Dems politicians have repeatedly hammered home the message that the SNP government has centralised powers to Edinburgh during the past two Scottish parliamentary terms.
Last week the party put together what it described as a “damning new dossier setting out the true impact of SNP centralisation”.
On the back of that, Labour candidate Gerry McGarvey suggested his Lib Dem rival Alistair Carmichael was “actually being quite charitable and tempered in his criticism of the SNP and their power-crazed drive towards centralisation of all civic society and destruction of local decision making”.
The “dossier” claimed the SNP had: seized powers over the police by abolishing Northern Constabulary; stripped councils of major areas of financial responsibility; disbanded local enterprise company boards, and shifted decision-making about European structural funds from the highlands and islands to Edinburgh.
The document also said funding decisions related to the Gilbert Bain Hospital were now made in Edinburgh, while the Crofting Commission is “under threat” of amalgamation with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission Scotland.
Carmichael said: “Hardly a week goes by where we [don’t] get another dewy-eyed reminiscence from the SNP candidate, Danus Skene, about how well he knew Jo Grimond and how he is his political heir.
But Skene dismissed Carmichael’s claims, saying that far from taking powers away from the islands, the SNP was continuing to discuss special requirements as part of the Our Islands Our Future (OIOF) agenda, under which Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles are seeking greater local control.
He promised to take the islands’ case to Westminster if he is elected on 7 May, claiming a substantial SNP group in the next parliament “will ensure the most effective representation of island interests”.
Skene said the SNP’s programme was in “stark contrast to the harmful austerity programme that Alistair Carmichael played his part in implementing as deputy chief whip in the Tory/Lib Dem UK coalition government”.
He said the SNP is “holding wide open the access door to island autonomy” and he wants that autonomy to eventually be written into a Scottish constitution.
Rather than removing financial powers from Orkney and Shetland, Skene claimed the 2007 concordat between the SNP government and local authorities “included the almost complete abolition of ringfencing of local government funding”.
Local authorities – including some politicians in Shetland – have been particularly critical of the council tax freeze imposed throughout Scotland for the past eight years.
But Skene said the concordat “gave councils greater flexibility in deciding how to use their resources, and represented a significant transfer of power from central to local government”.
He said the SNP wished to work with councils to tackle the ageing population and pressure on public spending, which meant reforms were necessary.
“This can mean restructuring services where that is the best way of focusing resources on the front line, especially if democratic accountability is enhanced.”
Skene said it was “wrong and dishonest to portray the ending of Northern Constabulary as centralisation”. He pointed to £1.1 billion of savings by 2026 from replacing Scotland’s eight regional police forces with a national service.
“At the same time it has actually improved local accountability, with an almost 150 per cent increase in the number of locally elected members scrutinising the police service across Scotland and shaping local delivery through agreed local policing plans. Mr Carmichael should talk to local police commanders and councillors involved.”
He said Carmichael’s “examples of alleged centralisation” were in fact the opposite: plans for new hospitals are worked up locally, with capital funding “inevitably and properly the role of central government, as is the case with new secondary schools”.
Skene added: “Liberal principles have been abandoned. What has happened to Jo Grimond’s Home Rule based on the sovereignty of the Scottish people when a ‘liberal’ secretary of state is satisfied with the Smith Commission proposals of handing out sweeties of a few more devolved powers?”
But McGarvey asserted that the SNP had “emasculated local decision making by flexing authoritarian muscle and centralising every public institution, and all the while hide deceitfully behind the mask of pretending to be progressive”.
He said the council tax freeze – accepted by local authorities as they would otherwise lose out financially – had been the “most visible sign of this”.
“Presented as a goodwill gesture to the people of Scotland as a sop suggesting that people were saving money, it is in fact a con trick as services have to be paid for, and it was effectively a noose round the neck of SIC councillors to squeeze services throughout Shetland,” McGarvey continued.
He feels the SIC should be in a position where it can “manage its own programme as determined by those democratically elected locally, and for them to be able to make their own decisions about local tax-raising powers” – something envisaged by Donald Dewar when devolution was introduced in the late 1990s.
“Actually, I want to see the power flow further, out of council chambers and into Shetland’s villages and communities, as opposed to the centralisation of powers that we have seen under the SNP government in Holyrood,” McGarvey said.
He said the OIOF initiative could help make that happen, putting a structure in place so that self-governing local people could work together with other tiers of government.
“The essence of bad politics is the pursuit of power,” McGarvey added. “The essence of good politics is the wise and appropriate allocation of resources and money.
“However, the SNP administrations since 2007 have managed to turn the good into bad by their self-serving centralist agenda and [have] been clutching that wallet tight for the sole purpose of promoting a culture of anger and hostility towards the UK government.
“I am more than angry when it emerges that whilst Shetland Islands Council, along with other local authorities, were struggling to meet the needs of islanders with regard to their healthcare, social care and other essential services, the SNP government were sitting on [a] £444 million underspend which could have addressed the needs [of] our communities.”
Tory candidate Donald Cameron said he favoured localism over centralisation because “the best decisions are always taken as ‘close’ as possible to the people they affect”.
“The SNP government should not only devolve further powers out to local authorities, but also beyond them,” Cameron said, “so that powers are in fact passed on further to local bodies, parishes and community groups.”
UKIP’s northern isles candidate Robert Smith said he didn’t see “much difference between the Lib Dem and SNP positions”.
“One believes decisions should be made in Edinburgh within the constraints of EU diktat and the other that it should happen locally by unelected officials under diktats from Edinburgh and the EU,” Smith said.
“UKIP would put these decisions and services in the hands of local elected councillors accountable to the voters without interference from on high.”