Sea-change on the horizon for local governance?

The Local Government and Regeneration Committee were in Stornoway to hear evidence as part of an inquiry about the flexibility of local government.
The Local Government and Regeneration Committee were in Stornoway to hear evidence as part of an inquiry about the flexibility of local government.

The question of Scotland’s future in the UK rumbles on, but running alongside is another debate which could be equally important for islanders.

The three island councils, Orkney, Shetland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, have taken the opportunity to push for the further devolution of powers, enabling more decision making at a local level.

The campaign has been hailed a success - in less than a year the councils have attracted the attention of both the Westminster and Holyrood decision makers. The one thing that seems certain following the referendum on September 18th is that the Western Isles will see change, regardless of what the future holds for Scotland as a whole.

But as the push for more power continues, it appears it is not just the three island councils who want change. As austerity hits locally, impacting on services, the public themselves appear to want more say. But are the traditional systems of local governance up to the task?

The islands are getting close to gaining more control while at the same time there is widespread support for reducing the number of councillors. By the next local authority elections the Western Isles looks set to have fewer representatives lining the Comhairle chamber.

And even though the council carries out consultations about budget decisions, there is still discontent being voiced that the public does not have enough say.

An appetite for change, and more community involvement, was the message coming from Friday’s meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee held in Stornoway.

“I think that folks felt there should be more budget engagement than there currently is between the council and people,” said the Committee Convenor Kevin Stewart MSP, following an informal meeting with community group representatives from throughout the Western Isles.

“Beyond that there seems to be an almost unanimous view that budgets need to be devolved further to communities.”

The MSP for Aberdeen continued: “I think that local government needs to look at how it delivers services and where it delivers services from. Personally I think one of the ways of dealing with the issue is actually devolving the budget. Not actually devolving the departments but devolving the budgets - because simply where the money lies is where the power rests.”

Comhairle Leader Angus Campbell has said he would be happy to see a system where budgets are devolved beyond local authority level if that’s what islanders want, but stressed he has serious doubts about the practicalities of relying on voluntary or community groups to take on additional responsibilities.

When it comes to looking towards the future of local decision making Cllr Campbell said he believes it must be a conversation among the islands. “One answer doesn’t fit all,” he said. “You have to let communities tell you what they want to do.”

The effectiveness of informal communications between the local authority and the public is something not to be overlooked he added.

“The best way is for people to come up and tell you,” said Cllr Campbell. In the islands more than anywhere else, he explained, people know who their councillors are and how to get hold of them.

“Here people can walk into the shop and shout at you over the counter. That does happen sometimes.”

Recognising the strengths that already exist in the islands was a point that Huw Francis, Chief Executive, Storas Uibhist, highlighted while giving evidence to the Parliamentary Committee. “The vast majority of feedback is informal,” he explained to the MSPs. “It’s one of the difficulties when things are centralised in Stornoway.” He added: “We do engage in a localised way.”

2014 may be a time of thinking about Scotland’s place within the Union - but is also appears to be the opportune moment to consider where power should lie locally.