Why Reorganise Local Government - AGAIN?

In short, because the system we’ve ended up with after two reforms in 1973 and 1994 is woeful. Scotland’s current 32 council system of local government isn’t actually anything approaching local, and some might argue it doesn’t do much governing either. Compared to our neighbours on the continent, our councils are truly massive. Outside of the UK and Ireland, the European country with the largest councils is Denmark, which conveniently happens to be about the same size in population terms as Scotland. It has a total of 98 local councils, meaning they are one third the size of ours.

In Scotland, we’ve stuck Inverness, Fort William, Ullapool and Thurso in the one council area (Highland) and called that “local”. Apparently having towns like Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and Glenrothes all vying for attention under the umbrella of Fife rather than having their own town councils, like anywhere else their size in Europe would have, is “local”. We’ve even given a number of our most regionally and/or historically important places a wee pat on the head and got the monarchy to declare them cities, but haven’t bothered to give them a council to actually do anything with the status. Great!

The layer of government that people should feel the most connection to and the most power over is widely seen as the most useless. Whilst there’s a general trend towards increasing distrust of and distaste towards politicians local government could never be immune to, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that so few people have any confidence in their councils when those councils are so remote from most communities. So this isn’t just about bringing us more in line with Europe for the sake of the numbers, but about reconnecting people and politicians to genuinely local areas and in so doing improving democratic accountability and our society.

Places, not Powers

The focus in this project is almost entirely on the geography of local government, not its role. Obviously, the exact functions of the councils proposed in this project would be of utmost importance were they ever implemented. However, there is substantial variance across Europe and the wider world about how powers are divided up between layers of government. A precise set of competencies for the Scottish context, where we also have a devolved parliament to contend with, is a detailed body of work for someone else.

Basically, as important as powers are, they’re often intangible things. On the other hand, the notion of having an actual council in your town hall rather than just using it as an attractive backdrop for wedding photos is a much easier concept to grasp. Producing at least an outline of what “more local” government could mean in practice seemed a useful contribution to make. Convincing people that decisions should be made more locally is a first step towards agreeing what decisions they should be making.

Different Councils for Different Things

Our current 32 Councils perhaps represent an awkward attempt to balance locality of governance with efficiency of services and coherence of infrastructure in one unit. It hasn’t really worked out, with most of our councils being too big to be considered local, but too small to deliver genuine efficiency or deliver wider strategic planning. Whatever its other flaws, one thing the 1973 Act did correctly was maintain a two-tier structure to local government, just over wider areas than the historic counties.

Although as mentioned above it won’t go into detail about the exact division of powers, this project takes the same approach. The general term used for the upper tier is “Region”, just as it was in that Act – and in fact, the overall boundaries of many of the proposed Regions are directly comparable to it. For the lower tier there’s a range of different names used, but they all come under the general title of “municipality”.

As an indication, you might expect Regional Councils to deal with matters of wider transport, environmental protection, tertiary education, and perhaps even have an oversight role for the Police, Fire Service and NHS. Municipalities could deal with issues including housing, social work, leisure, and waste collection. There would likely be an element of shared power between tiers in some areas. Transport would be a good example, as it shouldn’t be up to a Regional Council to send someone out to fix a pot hole on a residential street, whereas a Municipality probably isn’t going to be the best unit to develop a long-distance cycle way.

Rules and Building Blocks

To work out some alternative boundaries, there need to be some ground rules. The big one is I set a minimum population target of 20,000 residents. That isn’t an absolutely solid red line though. Areas smaller than that are allowed where they cover a large rural area, where they are only just short, or where there simply isn’t any other possible or sensible place to put an area. In total, just under 12% of municipalities come below that target.

There’s also a less formally defined upper limit on size for regions. “Less formally defined” here basically means “do not revive Strathclyde, for the love of the gods”. Similarly, I also avoid including the two largest cities in the country as part of wider regions in order to prevent them overpowering neighbouring areas.

The basic building blocks for new municipalities are existing electoral wards for councils. Where splitting those is necessary to deliver a sensible or coherent municipality, if possible the split follows existing geography like a river or road.

Councils also need to have people to sit on them, so a formula for determining seat numbers needs to be used. For Municipal Councils, I set a baseline of 13 seats. That increases by 2 councillors for every 5,000 residents between 20,000 and 50,000, then for every 10,000 between 50,000 and 100,000, then for every 20,000 above that.

Each municipality is also allocated a number of commissioners on the Regional Council, set to a baseline of 4 and with an additional commissioner for every 10,000 population. The aim here is to give a little bit of extra heft to smaller municipalities, so their voices aren’t ignored at the regional level.

One further complexity is allocating seats to Unitary Authorities. Since I generally envision them as having more powers than they presently do, I also reckon they’d need more seats than a standard municipality. I therefore take either the current or formula suggested (whichever is higher) number of councillors, and add 15%.

Imaginary Bums on Imaginary Seats

Drawing up boundaries is one thing, but it’s also useful to get a sense of the political leaning of each proposed new Council. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Scotland for local elections is quite complex and isn’t particularly easy to translate to alternative geographies. It’s by no means impossible, but it’s time consuming and frankly I don’t think it’s actually a particularly good system, although no system can be perfect. I’ve instead opted for a very simple Party List system. At both levels, this uses a 3% threshold to be eligible for seats and the D’Hondt method for allocating them.

For Municipal Councils, the hypothetical councillors are elected on the very simple basis of the municipality-wide vote. That would be highly proportional for most councils. It’s important to note that using the overall vote share to elect councillors doesn’t preclude them formally or informally representing smaller sections of the municipality, to give more an even more local connection.

Independent candidates are allowed to bypass the threshold, though there are relatively few councils large enough where that’d make a difference. Councils with particularly strong Independents do end up with somewhat distorted results, as obviously an Independent can only be elected once. That’s a rare instance where STV is actually useful, but my expectation would be that in larger councils that use a list system, votes would either be better spread between multiple credible Independents, lean more towards existing parties, or encourage Independents to form their own local parties.

For Regional Councils, it’s slightly more complex. Each municipality is treated as an electoral ward, electing all but one of its commissioners directly based on the local vote. The final commissioner for each municipality is elected based on the overall vote across the whole region. This helps ensure overall proportionality whilst still preserving the local connection of commissioners. If this form of regional “levelling” wasn’t used, it’d be possible for a party to for example win a seat in every municipality, but have zero representation on the regional council, which would not be fair.

As with the Municipal level, there’s a threshold waiver here for Independents and also for “local” parties. By my reckoning, a local party would be one that is specifically registered for one or a handful of municipalities and doesn’t contest national elections, for example the West Dunbartonshire Community Party.

For translating 2017 local election results to this system, a few tweaks had to be made. Independents were automatically assigned to the municipal level rather than regional. Where a party was present in some ward chunks making up a proposed municipality but not them all, a notional figure is calculated for them based on their support where they did stand and who their second preferences went to. That figure is further modified by assuming parties stood in their stronger areas, so slightly reducing higher vote shares, especially where a party stood in very few wards.