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Local government will be eclipsed by the Scottish parliament unless councils reform, Scottish local government mini...
Local government will be eclipsed by the Scottish parliament unless councils reform, Scottish local government minister Calum MacDonald warned last week in an exclusive interview with LGC.

Mr MacDonald was adamant that councils which refused to take on ideas such as elected provosts had to understand the threat posed by the parliament.

'For the past two decades local government has had the privilege of being the only directly elected layer of government in Scotland. That is going to end forever when the parliament is set up, based on proportional representation, which will be able to claim a real legitimacy to set against the historic claim of local government,' he said.

'It is also going to be a body that will be very powerful, will be full of energy and include some people new to elected politics who will be very keen to make a splash. Local government has got to realise the changing political climate and realise that although it has done extremely well to protect vital services from attack under the Conservatives it has now got to step up its game again.

'As part of the whole project of democratic renewal we will be looking at ways to revitalise local democracy. It has taken a pounding over two decades and we want to breathe new life into it so it will be able to form a good, constructive partnership with the parliament.'

Mr MacDonald is keen to see councils put into practice ideas such as cabinet-style executive committees to streamline the committee system, and directly elected provosts to make sure councils are still visible once voters have both an MP and an MSP (member of the Scottish Parliament) to represent them.

'Elected provosts will give local government a higher profile with the voters. A recent survey among councillors showed a marked reluctance to take on new ideas on organising local government and a preference to stick to the status quo of a fairly rigid committee system. I don't think that will leave local government in a good position to start the century with a new, dynamic Scottish parliament wanting to get stuck into lots of important policy areas.

'Local government has to recognise it cannot stand aside from the wind of change blowing through British democracy. You can't have Whitehall and Westminster all experiencing this constitutional revolution and local government not participating.'

Mr MacDonald claimed high-profile figures were supporting reform. He cited Frank McAveety - who has done 'enormously well' since being elected leader of City of Glasgow Council last October - as a supporter of elected provosts and City of Edinburgh Council leader Keith Geddes as a proponent of a cabinet-style approach.

'These ideas will gain wider favour. They have to,' said

Mr MacDonald.

He believed the reforms would help raise the calibre of councillors by attracting candidates: 'If, for example, you move to a cabinet style of local government you could improve the pool of council candidates. If in addition you made that cabinet a paid responsibility it would make it easier for people who already have fully paid jobs to move across to local government. That would be a big step.'

He believed that if this were accompanied by greater emphasis on strategic planning and less on direct running of services, 'then we would be able to get past this point where the only people able to participate in local government are those who are able to spend an enormous amount of time locked in committees endlessly discussing details'.

He rejected the idea that the Scottish Office was undermining the independent commission set up to examine relations between local government and the Scottish parliament, or the Scottish parliament itself, by pursuing reform so vigorously.

'In terms of local government finance, for example, that is not part of the commission's remit for the very good reason that it had to be part of the government's comprehensive spending review. As for the rest, the commission has a very wide remit, looking not just at the relationship between the parliament and local government but also looking deeply into local government itself, including questions on democratic renewal.

'It will be ultimately for the Scottish parliament to decide on these matters with the advice and guidance of the independent commission, but in the meantime that does not mean we in the Scottish Office just sit on our hands, leave it to others to make suggestions to the commission and say we have no views.'

After the usual ministerial plug for best value, he laughed at the suggestion that some councils only had the most tenuous grip on the idea of continuous improvement of services. 'It is a constant education process. It is important councils take this on as something they really want to do. Unless we have that it will always be hobbled.

'What destroyed CCT as a useful tool for service improvement was that it was compulsory, so a culture of avoidance set in - that is why it is so important to do it in partnership with local authorities. I think we can get there, but it is going to be a bumpy ride at times - we have seen that in the reaction from some quarters on the Accounts Commission report on council tax collection rates.

'We are getting rid of CCT but we are keeping 'CCC' - compulsory competitive comparisons. Councils will be asked to compare themselves constantly with the best models available for a service.'

Mr MacDonald hopes to visit all 32 councils by the end of the year, and he will be giving the doubters a simple message: 'Some councils are extremely keen and others are still puzzled as to why we want to change so many things. The whole philosophy of the government is to achieve radical democratic renewal in all our political institutions, and that cannot leave local government untouched.'

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