Democracy Matters: Local governance Phase 2 consultation

thumbnail of FINAL Local Governance response Feb 2024This is UNISON’s response to the Scottish Government and COSLA  ‘Democracy Matters: Local governance Phase 2 consultation’.

The consultation is part of the paused local governance review, launched jointly by the Scottish Government and COSLA in December 2017.

The review is considering “how powers, responsibilities and resources are shared across national and local spheres of government, and with communities.”


The Scottish Government said in the Programme for Government in 2018 that it wanted to decentralise power to a more local level. It would use the findings from the review “to put in place new governance arrangements, and where legislation is needed we will deliver these through a Local Democracy Bill.”

It is instructive that a consultation on local governance, entitled ‘Democracy Matters’, has coincided with the Scottish Government facing widespread criticism for imposing an unwanted and regressive council tax freeze on severely financially pressed local authorities. Indeed, Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary Shona Robison was accused of bullying council leaders into complying with the freeze – via a letter setting a deadline and warning that any council not agreeing to a freeze would not receive their share of £144 million funding for it. (Later threatening to withhold other funding too.)

So much for local democracy! COSLA has condemned the Scottish Government approach, saying it is not appropriate for Ministers to interfere in the democratic decision making of councils, and demanding that no more freezes should be imposed in this Parliament.

We believe that the most urgent threat to the people most affected by decisions about public services is the decimation of local government as well as the financial pressures on the NHS and other public services. Addressing the financial situation will have the most meaningful impact. Alongside that, democratic decision-making needs strong Freedom of Information laws to support people being able to access information they need to meaningfully take part.

As we submit this response, those councils which had planned to increase council tax by more than 5% find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place over the threat of freeze funding being withheld if they don’t do the Scottish Government’s bidding. And all councils are under severe financial pressures (“completely unsustainable”), with many currently asking locals to help prioritise from a list of unpalatable proposed cuts over which should not be made or where least cuts should be made.

We do not believe that the ambitions of Democracy Matters, aiming to bring powers closer to people, are for communities to be pitted against one another in ‘cuts’ surveys, where in a cost of living crisis people can ‘choose’ to keep a community hall or library in their area open rather than one in the next town – while reduced bus services and rising fares make using further away facilities inaccessible to those who most need them.

While we are fully supportive of engaged and vibrant participatory local democracy, and not opposed to discussing new ways for local communities to be better involved in improved decision-making, our main priority for urgent and necessary reform is to replace the council tax with a progressive property tax.

The local governance review is important, with scope to support communities and local democracy in better ways, but getting any final proposals right and properly resourced has to come before launching into something that could fail without the best thought-through proposals, widely consulted on in detail before any changes are initiated.

The most urgent and important way at present to improve local governance and local democracy is to replace the council tax with a progressive property tax. All political parties should agree to progress this at pace. A property revaluation must be started as soon as possible.