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Opinions / Island self-determination ‘completely normal’

Frustrated with the limitations of local government in Scotland since devolution, Shetland Islands Council decided earlier this year to look closely at the options of clawing some back political powers from Edinburgh and thus reviving local democracy. Here, council convener Malcolm Bell sets out the case for self-determination.

SIC convener Malcolm Bell
SIC convener Malcolm Bell.

RECENTLY the Scottish Government signalled its support for Andy Wightman MSP’s bill to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self Government into Scots Law. The Scottish Parliament therefore, should be able to pass it before the election in May and in doing so provide local authorities with some basic legal protection around their powers and independence. 

Scotland will cease to be a European outlier: the only other country outside the UK still to incorporate it is Hungary.

Andy Wightman’s campaign deserves real credit, as does the Scottish Government’s belated decision to support it. That the latter hesitated for so long however, still raises lingering concerns about their commitment to the institution of local government.

The welcome news, coincidentally, came the day following Shetland’s first online event looking at options for self-determination. That we moved, in the first place to explore this, demonstrates growing concern within the council that local government, far from being an equal partner in the governance of Scotland, is undervalued, underfunded and frankly under Holyrood.

We didn’t vote to replace London centralisation with a Scottish version from Edinburgh.  Twenty-one years after devolution, there has been no serious attempt to transfer power to councils.  Indeed we now have a system of local government in Scotland that is, frankly, no longer local nor is it government; a strange position for a country that frequently burnishes its European credentials.

As I have said before, this is not a party political argument: governments of all colours have for decades chipped away at the power of local councils, often in the process transferring responsibility to unelected quangos.

In so doing, we have lost control of many important services that our community values: public health, water, police and fire to name some.  Education, the very foundation of local government in Scotland, is now largely directed from Edinburgh and care it seems, could go the same way.  Business rates have for years now been set, controlled and redistributed by the centre.

But why does it matter? 

It’s not local. Devolution to communities should not stop at local authority level but it needs to start there.  In European terms, Scotland has the largest and most populous units of ‘local’ governance anywhere.  Shetland, regarded in Scotland as a tiny authority in population terms, is actually the optimum unit size of local government elsewhere in Europe.  In that respect, along with Orkney and the Western Isles we start with a structural advantage.  However, even that was only due to a hard won compromise during the regionalisation agenda in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when a pan Highland and Islands Authority was about to be imposed.

It’s not government.  A common feature of any true local governance model is the link between policy and revenue raising.  For example, at an election you ought to be able to choose between candidates who can say they aim to do X and it will cost you Y.

With around 80 per cent of revenue budget distributed from central government and 60 per cent of council spend directed towards delivering national priorities that vital link is becoming increasingly tenuous.  So, a good start would be the return of council tax and business rates to genuine local control.

Even the nominally local council tax, which we as elected councillors are obliged by law to set each year, is actually very much under the control of central government who instruct, under threat of sanction, if and by how much we may vary it.

Centralisation may result in a disconnect between the offer during an election campaign and the ability to deliver in office.  This can lead to disillusionment in both the elector and elected and may be one reason for poorly contested local elections with low voter turnout.  If this trend continues, we may find more seats in future are uncontested or even unfilled.

Another very obvious and recent example surrounds planning consent for large-scale wind farms. Wherever you stand on that issue, surely we can all agree that the ultimate decision should be taken by councillors accountable to their electors and not by a remote government minister.  At least then, as a community, we could own the result, for better or for worse.

Far from being ‘local government’, we are fast becoming a local delivery arm of central government, rather akin to health boards.

If we truly value local government and of course I think we should, we need to be worried about the centralisation of the last few decades.

Local government as we know it is under threat as never before, the response to Covid-19 serving only to accelerate that trend.

If we are happy with this then we need do nothing but we will be complicit in managing the decline of local democracy and local services.

The threat to local government is not exclusive to Shetland. However, our geography, our size and the existing make-up of our public services means we have a real opportunity, if we want it, to return democratic accountability and meaningful choice to our community.

This is not about gaining independence for Shetland. Nor can we become the Faroes overnight. However, during the recent event we heard, repeatedly, that self-determination is neither radical, nor exceptional but is completely normal almost anywhere else.

To succeed the community needs to agree the current direction of travel is no longer sustainable.  If we can demonstrate that, we can turn the tide.