Return power to local councils to act on services

Stephen Smellie
Stephen Smellie

The STUC overwhelmingly backed a range of measures to rebuild local democracy. It will press the Scottish Government to provide resources to ensure strong local democracy and to return to councils greater control over local taxes and powers to take services back in-house.

Moving the composite on behalf of UNISON and the GMB, Depute Convener, Stephen Smellie called for a return to the kind of local democracy that Scottish Councils used to enjoy.

“But it is not just about cuts, changes and job losses,” warned Stephen. “It is also about power and aspiration.”

He warned that too many services have been centralised, like water, further education, careers, economic development, police and fire, and in some areas housing stock transfer. This reduces the ability of councils to co-ordinate services and effort and reduces ability to adjust to local need.

He pointed to the 1970s and 80s when, in response to poverty councils employed welfare rights officers and community development workers to maximise benefits and to support communities to identify their own needs and either devise ways of addressing them or campaign for additional resources and funding.

“In fact, councils used to challenge government cuts, not simply administer them,” said Stephen.

And councils themselves had powers to raise finance through business and domestic rates so they could raise cash for anti-poverty initiatives or to improve services.

“Now council tax has been locked into a permanent perma-frost. The net result is that not only local services but local democracy has been destroyed.”

Stephen called for councils to have the powers to explore new tax raising initiatives like a tourist tax or an alcohol sales tax; and for greater partnership with trade unions, service users and communities.

“Councils should be agents of change,” he said, “Setting targets to improve equality, reduce poverty, improve educational attainment and independent living.

“They should be agents of democratic renewal. They should be agents of service delivery.

“But to achieve these aims we need to raise our sights. To encourage councils and councillors to both raise their aspirations and raise their game and to fight for local government.”

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