Will it be back to the future for local councils?

A report on the future of local government in Scotland could see the clocks turned back to a time of more grassroots control. BBC Scotland local government correspondent Jamie McIvor looks at how we got to where we are now.

Until 1975, there were around 200 councils in Scotland.

Most towns of any size had a council - even those which may have been considered to be part of the Glasgow conurbation by a visitor.

A student of the Clydebank Blitz may wish to examine how Clydebank Council prepared for the threat of air raids.

Rutherglen Town Hall stands as a reminder of its status as a burgh which is very definitely not part of Glasgow.

All that changed in 1975. The old system of local government was swept away and replaced by nine big regional councils with one set of powers and, underneath, a network of district councils.

Then in 1996 the current system with 32 unitary authorities came into being.

The Commission on Local Democracy points to a 50-year trend towards centralisation in Scotland.

Conventional thinking

Supporters of this argument cite more than the number of councils as evidence. They point to important services which councils are no longer directly involved with - further education, the police and fire - and ways in which local government has arguably become a mechanism to deliver national services such as primary and secondary education.

The terms of the current council tax freeze are also seen by some as evidence of the amount of power held by the centre.

The commission's report challenges the conventional thinking that Scotland has too many councils rather than too few.

It makes comparisons with some other European countries and notes that, compared to them, Scotland has a rather small number of councils, each covering a relatively large population.

The obvious argument is that there should be more councils, closer to the people they serve and armed with a far wider suite of financial powers.

But moves in this direction would not just swim against the direction of the tide in Scotland over the past 50 years. In Northern Ireland the number of councils has been cut and there are moves in Wales to halve their number.

Wales, like Scotland, has a system of local government designed before devolution.

The risk with any report like this, is that it simply becomes an intellectual exercise which leads to little or no action.

This is especially true in this case as the commission was set up by the council organisation COSLA - although COSLA itself has still to reach a view on its recommendations.

'More expensive'

Calls to decentralise some powers are likely to be provoke debate.

Some in the business community would be worried about any move back towards locally-set business rates, fearing this would simply make it more expensive to do business in some areas.

Similarly, those who argue for "more councils" would say this could be done without a huge tier of duplication. Services like road maintenance or education could be run jointly between them - the issue would be the level of local accountability.

But the big issue is simply going to be persuading those with the power to decentralise some of that power to cede some of it.

The commission has not taken a view on the question of independence. It hopes to improve local government, whether in the creation of the independent state or the implementation of extended devolution.

Primarily the current Scottish government or a future one would need to cede some power. But, if Scotland remains in the UK, there could be calls to devolve some responsibilities, such as aspects of Housing Benefit, to councils.

But before any of this happens, the commission's ideas will need to be taken up by the principal political parties as they shape their policies for the next Holyrood election in 2016.

Otherwise this report may become as much of a footnote in the history of local government as some of the once proud burgh councils of Scotland.

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