Meeting of the Parliament 26 April 2012
Jackson Carlaw (West Scotland) (Con): I nearly drowned in the bath when I heard that I had 14 minutes. Not even my mother or my wife would listen to me for 14 minutes, so it is extraordinarily unreasonable to expect members to listen to me for that long.
Members: Hear, hear!
Jackson Carlaw: I am grateful for that early indication of support. With the Presiding Officer’s discretion, I may draw my remarks to a conclusion before 14 minutes.
All members know that Scotland has a date with destiny. We are moving inexorably towards the defining moment in our nation’s history. The people of Scotland will watch with interest an election that will take place just before Christmas in 2014. I refer, of course, to the leadership election in the Scottish National Party following its catastrophic result in the referendum just a few weeks before. Senior ministers, none of whom is with Mr Mackay at the moment, are among the contenders, along with Mr Mackay, who is, I understand, now the front runner in that leadership contest. I will turn to him in a moment.
One contender is Mike Russell, who has defined the aim of his office as being not so much to improve the education of children as to demonstrate to children how clever he is. We believe that his objective should be to ensure that children who leave school are cleverer than him. I understand that he would think that that is an impossible objective, but it is the least that the rest of us in the chamber believe that he should aspire to.
Nicola Sturgeon’s moment may well have passed. She is, of course, mobilising her troops on the border at this very moment to fend off the invasion of the health service from England to which she alluded in her conference speech.
Alex Neil is the great huff and puff of the Administration. Last week, he said that the unionist parties could not be trusted to deliver more devolution to the Parliament as a bill was passing through Westminster—
Jackson Carlaw: I am getting to it right now, Presiding Officer. I am doing exactly that.
I look forward to the contribution in response to the debate of Derek Mackay, the Minister for Local Government and Planning. Some sensational election announcements are no doubt forthcoming. It is certainly a pattern that the Administration makes such announcements after hundreds of thousands of Scots have already cast their vote by post.
In the debate that will follow, my colleagues Liz Smith, Margaret Mitchell and, I hope, Alex Johnstone will identify ways in which the Government has sought to centralise power in respect of local government, education and transport. The central thrust of our motion is not to argue that everything about the Government or any Government is beyond praise or redemption. Hard as it may be, I accept that there are things that the Government has done during the past five years that the Scottish Conservatives support; indeed, there are things that we have insisted be delivered in return for our support. The Administration may have other redeeming qualities, and no doubt SNP members will tease us with suggestions, most of which will undoubtedly be either hollow or shallow.
Despite their professed rhetoric to the contrary, ministers in the Government believe at heart that they know best. For them, devolution is a one-way principle: it is the devolution of power down from Westminster to them and the devolution of decision making up from local councils to them. For Scottish Conservatives, as David Cameron stated in Dumfries last week, we have, through the Scotland Bill, together with the Liberal Democrats and Labour,
“delivered devolution to Scotland, now it’s time to deliver devolution within Scotland.”
He said that it is about
“smashing through the old-school, centralising, power-hoarding establishment that has had its grip on Scottish life for too long.”
Nowhere is that centralising more consuming in its suffocation of local determination than in planning, which we have discussed in debates in the chamber that have been led by us and the Labour Party. Just yesterday, outside Parliament stood many who have become exasperated with the physical consequences of the Scottish Government’s seemingly insatiable appetite for wind turbines whenever, wherever, whether in singular, plural or multiple form, short, tall, cloud-breaking, quiet or noisy. Councils are now overwhelmed with applications fuelled by subsidies and find that, whatever their local determination, it is likely that a refusal will be overturned. My colleague Alex Johnstone has established the same with mobile phone mast applications; of the 25 applications that have been rejected by local councils, a staggering 17 decisions have been overturned by this Government.
Mike MacKenzie: Is it often not the case that the people who complain most about mobile phone masts are those who are also asking for 3G and forthcoming 4G broadband in rural areas? Does the member agree that that is unlikely to be delivered without an adequate provision of mobile phone masts?
Jackson Carlaw: I understand the member’s point, but the majority of complaints come from urban environments and are invariably concerned not with the principle of masts but with the particular site that has been chosen. The reasons for siting a mast in a particular location are very often confused and more in the applicant’s interests than in the interests of delivering a service.
When communities campaign against potentially devastating applications for unsolicited development in their areas, they find that the hands of key local representatives are tied behind their backs. In introducing the councillors’ code of conduct, the Standards Commission for Scotland surely could not have meant for councillors to come to feel barred from any community involvement in or even expression of opinion on key planning applications, the nature of which is consuming the interest and passions of those by whom they were elected. However, that is what is happening. It is ridiculous—and insidious—that councillors from a relatively small local community cannot express their opinion or campaign in respect of a planning application without their finding that they have forfeited their right to vote on it.
As a result, the Scottish Conservatives would abolish the central councillors’ code of conduct and allow local authorities to bring forward their own codes.
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Derek Mackay): Is the member proposing that we remove any view that a local member should not prejudice a planning application? Secondly, does he now not support the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006, which was agreed across the chamber and ensured the right of appeal to reporters?
Jackson Carlaw: If Mr Mackay waits, he will hear the point that I am making. Scottish Conservatives would abolish the central councillors’ code of conduct and allow local authorities to bring forward their own codes, which, we believe, would have at their heart the notion that being elected to office is in itself a commitment to act in the public interest and that a forced objectivity in planning decisions is unnecessary. Communities are certainly bewildered by the fact that they cannot go to their councillor and have a meaningful discussion about a major application for a proposed development in their area because of the councillor’s belief that any determination that they might make would leave them barred from expressing an opinion. What is the point of local democracy if the very people who must ultimately make a determination on such matters are forbidden from participating in any discussion or meeting on the issue? Indeed, many councillors feel that they cannot even attend public meetings on the issues at stake for fear of the suggestion that by doing so they have prejudiced their independence and impartiality.
Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): I have some sympathy with aspects of this issue, but I have to wonder why the Conservatives did not support the introduction of wider appeal rights, for example, when the planning legislation was being debated.
We have not yet achieved full compliance with the Aarhus convention, even at national level. Is the member suggesting that if we allowed local authorities to introduce separate processes they would be quicker at delivering Aarhus compliance than the national Government has been?
Jackson Carlaw: Given that we are advocating local solutions, the answer must be yes. I think that we are advocating that the codes that apply should be appropriate to local communities, particularly in relation to planning, to ensure that local solutions and priorities can take precedence. Councillors would be able to have their say.
That approach would be allied to a commitment that local decisions should not be overturned just to stay in line with or satisfy central Government priorities. I will be even more explicit: local decisions should not be overturned just to satisfy central Government priorities on wind turbines and waste incinerators.
The overturning of local decisions by central Government to fulfil its evangelistic faith in its central objectives is an obvious and demonstrable expression of the devolution of decision making up from local communities to a centralising Government at Holyrood.
Jackson Carlaw: I have taken a couple of interventions, so I would like to move on to something else now, if I may.
The core of centralised decision making has introduced a creeping malaise into localised decision making in another field. Members have recently noted the exploitation of some of the desire to see an extension of pharmacy provision where currently general practitioner dispensing practices have fulfilled the function. In its intent, the presumption in favour of a pharmacy application was sensible enough, but over time it has become clear that some who have no interest in or commitment to the local community are now seeking to ease out responsible GP dispensing practices for narrow commercial advantage.
One such example exists in my west of Scotland constituency on the Isle of Cumbrae. The Cumbrae medical practice is operated in ideal premises that were converted and supported with the assistance of the health board, providing a 24-hour service to islanders. The dispensing facility has made an island medical practice viable. The alternative—a mainland-only GP—is clearly undesirable and, with the island being dependent on ferry services, it is also potentially dangerous. Yet the application for an alternative pharmacy has been granted over the clearly expressed wishes of the community. Representatives of the community spoke to the minister, who, to his credit, wrote to health boards to suggest that, even when a pharmacy application is granted, there is no requirement for the health board to terminate the GP dispensing practice.
The reality is that, having noted the minister’s comments, the health board has received legal advice that suggests that the criteria by which a determination to allow the GP dispensing practice to continue are so tight that a successful legal challenge from the new pharmacy would inevitably follow.
The decision to terminate the GP dispensing practice on Cumbrae was confirmed last Monday. I said earlier that the applicant had no community interest. Members might be interested to know that, within hours, I was made aware that the newly approved pharmacy is up for sale. The application was not rooted in the community interest, but in the narrow commercial interest of an individual exploiting the original intent of a measure to expand pharmacy provision.
That is wrong. The central Government objective of extending pharmacy provision, which is laudable in itself, is being used to override the wishes and desires of local communities. Scottish Conservatives would devolve the decision-making back to health boards and allow them the broadest possible discretion to determine their own local community interest.
This Government professes to believe in devolution and in giving individuals their say, but in all its manifestations, the Government has taken to itself the responsibility and the authority for decision making. It is a Government with senior ministers who have been in office too long. They have come to believe, as did Louis XIV, that “l’état, c’est moi”. The state is them and they alone should be the determiners and arbiters of what is right.
Our motion identifies the centralising heart of the SNP Government and proposes instead the devolution of power back to local communities and local councils as the true way forward for the devolution of power from this Parliament to the people of Scotland.
That the Parliament notes with concern, despite the SNP administration’s rhetoric to the contrary, the increasing centralisation of power into the hands of ministers rather than to Scotland’s councils and local communities; deplores the growing number of decisions being made and initiatives being introduced by central government and imposed on local authorities and local communities, particularly those relating to planning and service provision; considers that the effect of this centralisation has had a counterproductive, stifling and damaging effect on local democracy and accountability, and supports measures that enhance localism and subsidiarity and that return decision-making to Scottish communities.
The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Derek Mackay): Jackson Carlaw has somewhat disappointed the people of Scotland by outlining a prospectus for conservatism as we enter the local government elections. It was unfortunate of him to refer to leadership contests because, of course, the First Minister has been in office for longer than the party leaders that he has demolished in the chamber. I am quite sure that there will be a good result in the council elections and the independence referendum and that the First Minister will continue in his style, which all members love. [Laughter.]
I admire Jackson Carlaw’s style. I love the comedy turn of his contributions in the chamber. This morning, we disappointingly heard another comedy turn instead of a proper policy speech on localism as we understand it, or how we can empower local government to make the right decisions for local people. His speech was deeply disappointing in not referring positively to what the Conservatives would do differently with local democracy and the principle of subsidiarity, which we support.
The referendum in 2014 will give the Parliament and the people of Scotland an opportunity to transfer powers, not from local government to the Scottish Government, but from the London Government to the people of Scotland, either at local government or Scottish Government level. This Administration has a fantastic record of working in partnership with local communities and local government to arrive at the right decisions for local people. Let us take the historic concordat, which reinvigorated the relationship with local government. It is praised right across the political spectrum.
Jackson Carlaw: I was at a recent meeting of the Health and Sport Committee at which Nicola Sturgeon and SNP members railed against the consequences of pension reform in London. They said that a gun was being held to the head of Scotland so that it would agree to the reforms. Is not the historic concordat simply a gun to the head of local authorities, whereby if they do not agree with the SNP Government, they will not get the money? What kind of localism is that?
Derek Mackay: Of course the concordat is praised. Members should not take my word for it; they should take the word of a Labour councillor—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities president, Pat Watters. He has praised the concordat and the Government’s continuing relationship with local government. [Interruption.] The Conservatives laugh. Pat Watters is loyal to his party, but he is more loyal to local government.
The concordat ensured that the Government had a positive and constructive relationship with local government. It also ensured a new financial regime that saw local government’s share of spending increase under our Administration in comparison with spending under the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration. It ensured that ring fencing was reduced. After the reform of police and fire services—which I will come to shortly—less than £6 million of local government funding will be ring fenced. That represents a 99 per cent reduction in ring fencing under the SNP Government in comparison with previous Administrations. The Tories laugh because they know how poor their record on local government is in comparison with the shining example of true subsidiarity and localism that we have seen under the SNP.
The review of community planning is testimony to that. It involves our bringing all parts of the public sector together to deliver a focus on outcomes and real policy objectives that will make a difference. In partnership with the public sector and local government, we have agreed a statement of ambition for how we will work together. We have delivered joint policy development and public sector reform that will involve prevention and which will improve performance, integration and workforce development. That has all been done in partnership with local government, with a view to reaching the right decisions for local people.
On police and fire reform, we will ensure that, rather than having remote regional boards, the flexibility is there for local empowerment, local decision making and local connection of a kind that we have not seen before. Through a single police service and a single fire service, we will ensure that there is local transparency and accountability. At the same time, we will protect the number of police officers on the street.
We are incentivising local democracies to retain more of their local business rates to invest in their communities. What we got from the Conservatives was empty rhetoric. They whittled the issue down to being about planning; they did not mention finance.
Gavin Brown (Lothian) (Con): The minister’s microphone is on, so he does not need to shout for the entire 10 minutes.
On business rates incentivisation, why is 50 per cent of the additional money that is collected kept by central Government?
Derek Mackay: As the member well knows, a range of funding streams go into the pot, which is then disbursed to local government in a fair way according to a regime that is agreed with COSLA and 32 out of 32 local authorities.
I turn to planning and the nonsense that we are overturning applications across the country. Let us take telecommunications masts. Because of this Government’s action and the system that it has put in place, fewer applications or, indeed, appeals are coming to the reporters administration for determination than under previous Administrations. I suggest that, on matters such as telecommunications masts, the issue is less about localism and more about opportunism on the part of the Opposition parties. Why is it that telecommunications masts are safe and fine in the view of Conservatives who are in authority in England, whereas, for Conservatives in Scotland, they are not safe or fine and should not be located in particular areas?
Only this morning a health report concluded that there was no evidence of such technology having a health impact, despite the perception that exists. When we discuss telecommunications masts, we should refer to the facts. I am somewhat surprised that the Conservatives now believe—
Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): Does the member acknowledge that we are not arguing for or against telecommunications masts per se? We are complaining about the fact that the minister’s Government is deliberately overturning local decisions.
Derek Mackay: I will come back to that. Alex Johnstone is for the roll-out of broadband, but Jackson Carlaw is against it, as it requires telecommunications technology. We are considering fewer applications through the reporters, who are independent of the Scottish Government in their determinations, than were considered under previous Administrations. That applies not only to the Labour and Liberal Democrat Administrations, but to the most centralised state in western Europe, which was Scotland pre the Scottish Parliament, when we had a single secretary of state and his bureaucracy pretending to be a democracy. That shows that we have delivered on your localism agenda.
You suggest that, across the country, we are overturning the views of local people on wind farms and turbines. However, for developments of more than 50MW, on which the Scottish Government makes the decisions through energy consents, local government agrees with us in two thirds of cases. On local determinations, in cases that are appealed by applicants, we agree with local government two thirds of the time. Therefore, it is patently inaccurate and untrue to say that we are overturning decisions across the country.
Derek Mackay: I have taken enough interventions. I will consider taking more in my summing-up speech.
The Tory manifesto is an empty one that is hunting for a policy or cause to attach itself to. The best that you can do is localism in England, but we have already delivered.
Derek Mackay: Okay.
On localism, the United Kingdom Government has adopted the big society, but we know that that really means cuts to public services. However, the Scottish Government believes in growing the third sector and social enterprises and in working in partnership with people. People will remember Michael Forsyth talking about “real devolution” in 1995. The Conservative concept of devolution is best exemplified through welfare reform. The Conservatives have not devolved the power on welfare to us so that we can create a more compassionate society; they have simply passed the burden to the weakest and most vulnerable in Scotland. The Scottish Government and I will make no apologies for protecting more than half a million of the most vulnerable people in Scotland from the Conservatives’ actions on council tax benefit and ensuring that they are protected from the consequences of Conservative decisions at Westminster.
In the absence of the devolution of welfare, we have used every tool at our disposal to protect local people. We are investing in local communities through an increased share of funding, working in partnership in community planning and ensuring that we have a robust planning system and appeals process. The Scottish Government has delivered on the principle of subsidiarity while meeting the national commitments for which we received a mandate from the Scottish people in May 2011.
I move amendment S4M-02687.1, to leave out from “notes” to end and insert:
“recognises the transformation of relations with local government over the last five years from one of central government control to a successful partnership arrangement based on mutual respect, as demonstrated throughout the last five years by the historic concordat agreed in 2007, the reduction in ring-fenced funding empowering local government, the introduction of single outcome agreements and the joint development of policy, most recently in relation to the abolition of council tax benefit, and notes that this relationship was reaffirmed following the 2011 Scottish election, with local government maintaining its share of the Scottish Budget in 2011-12 and local government’s share of the Scottish Budget by the end of the current spending review period being higher than it was in 2007-08, a review of community planning and single outcome agreements, planning reforms and the ongoing development of the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.”
Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab): I welcome the fact that the Conservative Party has chosen this topic for its business this morning. Although we agree to an extent on the importance of local decision making, we disagree on the details, and we have a good chance to debate the issue this morning. There is a tension between the provision of national services and decision making on local priorities. As Mr Mackay has loudly proclaimed, the Scottish National Party removed ring fencing, but it also devolved all the conflicts in implementing its manifesto decisions to local authorities and then removed the capacity for those authorities to implement them. The SNP did not even check how much it would cost. Many of those manifesto commitments have withered on the vine or been unceremoniously dumped.
The backdrop to the debate is next week’s local government elections. The SNP has been silent for the past 24 hours, although Derek Mackay made up for that by giving us a full-on defence. The best form of defence is always attack, so I thank the minister for that. For Scottish Labour, next week’s elections are important in their own right. They are not about a stepping stone to independence; they are about the detailed decisions that are made in every one of our local authorities and communities. The elections are about the capacity for local authorities to provide services for communities throughout Scotland.
That is why I am proud of our local manifesto production process. It was not a top-down approach. Every one of our local Labour teams—not all include councillors, and some of the teams are fighting seats where we do not currently have Labour councillors—decided what to put in their local manifestos. I am proud of that. There are common themes and values, but the detailed prescriptions may be different because the teams have worked on and developed their radical ideas with local communities and trade unions, and with local campaigners about the priorities and circumstances of their communities. That is how it should be. Our approach of listening to people was not accidental, it was deliberate. We believe that the local elections are about the capacity of local communities to be defended from the current financial situation and to develop their own priorities.
We know that the Tory Government is cutting back too fast and too deep, and the fact that we are back in recession is testament to that. For all the rhetoric that we have had from Mr Mackay about protecting public services, the uncomfortable fact for the SNP is that it deliberately allocated 89 per cent of its budget cuts to local authorities. The absolute liberation from ring fencing is a false dawn, because the money is not there to do what the SNP said that it would do.
Sarah Boyack: We debated that issue last time. It is not just about what the Scottish Government is funding, it is about what it will not let local authorities do in terms of funding. Look at the council tax benefit deal that was done last week. I totally empathise with COSLA. The deal on the table it was offered was £23 million if it contributed a bit versus nothing if it did not.
I am told by my local authority contacts that the real deal is that the minister said that local authorities can use the money raised as a result of the Local Government Finance (Unoccupied Properties etc) (Scotland) Bill. However, anyone who listened to the Finance Committee’s session yesterday will know that the SNP’s figures were absolutely demolished in the evidence given during the financial scrutiny of that bill. The suggestion is that it will not, as the Scottish Government claims, raise £18 million. For example, the £3.5 million that Glasgow City Council was getting in the last few weeks to help local youth unemployment will be wiped out by its contribution on council tax benefit. It is all smoke and mirrors. Please excuse us if we do not celebrate when that comes on top of the cuts and the changes to the bus service operators grant that were debated in the Parliament last week. Local SNP leaders are beginning to object to what their Government is doing—they are prepared to sign letters complaining about the Scottish Government’s decisions.
Housing is another area where cuts have been made. That makes it difficult for local authorities to provide the housing that they desperately need for local people, when the level of people’s incomes—as a result of the recession—means that people have no chance to save up for a deposit to buy a home, or to sustain a mortgage.
I agree with the Conservatives that the SNP is a centralising Government. The purpose of devolution was never to devolve power to a Scottish Parliament only to see it accumulate powers from the local government level upwards. We need only to see the SNP’s plans for our national police force to see how centralising the SNP is, because that could have been an opportunity to increase local accountability. Although the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill contains mechanisms—
Paul Wheelhouse (South of Scotland) (SNP) rose—
Sarah Boyack: Let me continue, please. You are attacking me before you have heard what I have to say.
Although that bill contains mechanisms to involve local political representatives at a local level, those mechanisms do not provide crucial local accountability on policing budgets or on allocation of resources.
The SNP’s centralisation of power will mean a police service run by a board appointed by ministers, led by a chief constable approved by ministers, working to a national plan agreed with ministers, with a budget approved by ministers. The division of powers among local government, central government and the police will be lost, and policing that is independent of central government will be put at risk.
The SNP’s bill is silent on what will happen if a local council does not agree a local policing plan with the chief constable, because the reality is that the council has no sanctions to strengthen its case. Surely, there is an opportunity to improve policing at a national level, on things such as trafficking and serious crime, which we should all agree on. There is also an issue about financial accountability at a local level—on things such as anti-social behaviour and local policing policy—because there is no clout at a local level built into that bill. That is the reality of centralisation under the SNP.
The SNP is good at asserting that it has done things, but we need a reality check. By ensuring ever-tighter central control of the purse strings and reducing support centrally for activities such as school replacement and flood management investment, the SNP has passed the buck to local authorities. It says that it has devolved responsibility to them, but it is not helping them to implement policies in practice.
Sarah Boyack: I will not give way, as I am in my last minute.
The desperate efforts to keep secret the reality of the SNP’s plans for local income tax go to the heart of the matter. That is not surprising, because the reality is that the figures that the SNP has quoted are completely fictitious—the tax rate would be double the level that the SNP claims that it would be. It is important to check the detail.
Sarah Boyack: As for a policy of no redundancies for the public sector, 13,000 local authority jobs were lost last year. With the SNP, we need to check the small print.
I move amendment S4M-02687.2, to leave out from “with concern” to end and insert:
“the severity and speed of the public sector cuts put in place by the UK Government, that the SNP administration allocated as much as 89% of all budget cuts to local government, doubling the level of cuts allocated by the UK Government to Scottish local authorities, that the SNP administration has undermined the capacity of local authorities to protect services to local communities and that local authorities are increasingly reliant on the Scottish Government for funding for local services and believes that strong local councils are a crucial part of democracy in Scotland, enabling local communities to determine priorities for their local areas.”
Paul Wheelhouse (South Scotland) (SNP): I will start by addressing the point that Sarah Boyack made about the single police force. I understood that the Labour Party fought the previous Scottish Parliament elections on a promise of a single police force, so it is ironic that Labour now criticises that policy.
The Tories’ motion talks of rhetoric, which is ironic given the opening speech. The Tories talk of centralisation, which is also ironic given their record of gerrymandering local government boundaries to suit them—although in practice the electorate saw to it that it did not suit the Tories at all, and the same will happen on 3 May. The Tory manifesto is a poor document that is thin on detail, which is understandable when the Tories have conceded that they are fighting the Lib Dems for the bronze medal in the local government elections.
In historians’ eyes, the Tories formed possibly one of the most centralising Governments in the history of the British isles. Mr Cameron has continued that theme with his patronising tone whenever he visits Scotland. By contrast, the SNP Government is pursuing a community empowerment and renewal bill and allowing the development of new rail stations through the new station investment fund and efforts to adopt stations.
When it comes to planning—especially in relation to renewables—Conservative councillors show overt and opportunistic cowardice. When any wind farm comes up for discussion, they seem to say, “Let’s reject this and force the Scottish Government to make the correct decision,” rather than treat each application on its merits.
A former shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and former incumbent in the role of sole Tory MP in Scotland, Mr Duncan, is standing in the Leaderdale and Melrose ward in the Borders. He has called for a moratorium on all wind farm developments, which I presume would apply even when communities fully support developments, as many do in the Borders. Apart from being against communities’ interests, the proposal smacks of prejudice.
Christine Grahame forced Mr Duncan to admit that he would rather see a new nuclear power station in Lauderdale than compromise on wind power. In the unlikely event that he is elected, I certainly hope that he does not end up on Scottish Borders Council’s planning and building standards committee.
When any decision is made in favour of a site that complies with the council’s planning policy, Tories locally will bleat that it was the bad SNP boy who rang the bell and ran away. They ignore the fact that the decision will have been made on planning grounds by an independent Government-appointed reporter who is a planning professional. We should contrast the Tories’ approach with the Government’s support for 500MW of community-owned and operated renewables.
The Tories’ motion refers to subsidiarity. Quite. When will the Tories realise that their mooting of issues such as subsidiarity loses all coherence and credibility when their leader in this place talks about lines in the sand on devolution, regardless of what the people of Scotland want or need? The Tories’ strong support for Calman, which excluded any reference to independence, showed their true colours.
When the Tories discuss subsidiarity while guffawing at any suggestion that the cabinet secretary from the area of these islands with more than 70 per cent of the fishing fleet should lead fisheries talks—recognising that such talks should be led by the most appropriate minister rather than placemen from the House of Lords—we know exactly where they stand. That shows their utter hypocrisy.
On centralisation, do not the Tories understand that, as the minister said, the concordat with local government has delivered far greater autonomy than they ever considered, let alone delivered? At its heart, that includes the freedom for local authorities to spend more than 90 per cent of all their income, since the practice of ring fencing has pretty much ended. Only limited ring fencing remains for spending on discrete matters such as community police officers, and there are clear links to single outcome agreements.
Single outcome agreements free up councils to decide how best to deliver outcomes that are agreed and shared with the Government. Perhaps that is why the innovative national performance framework and single outcome agreements are generating much interest from beyond Scotland.
The Scotsman has derided the Tories’ manifesto—it branded the term “local devolution” clumsy—so even newspapers that are steadfastly kind to the Tories have their doubts. The proposal is just a somewhat banal attempt by the Tories to rebrand their flop of a policy on the big society.
They propose directly elected mayors—surely all should be provosts, Mr Carlaw, or did that not survive the translation from London? Giving one elected member executive powers is not exactly a positive way to democratise councils and empower local communities, as more top-down management will result rather than power to the grass roots.
Jackson Carlaw: I realise that Mr Wheelhouse must disavow his personal Conservative past—I recall the days when he was a considerable activist in the young Conservative movement—but does he not understand that what we are proposing in directly elected provosts is people who will have the ability to stand up for and represent their communities against the centralising force of this centralising Government?
Paul Wheelhouse: Far from it, I see it as an opportunity for less connection between communities and council administrations. Executive models in Conservative-led councils such as Scottish Borders Council are being roundly criticised for their lack of connection with local communities. On my political past, I can honestly say that I am much better now—unlike the Conservative members sitting opposite.
On engagement with local stakeholders such as housing associations, the Tories refer to local housing in their manifesto but, in practice, they ignore calls from local housing associations to preserve exemptions to the right to buy in favour of their dogma on the right to buy. They know fine well that the housing supply in areas such as the Borders has collapsed, particularly the supply of three-bedroom properties.
Paul Wheelhouse: I will, Presiding Officer.
Rather than reject local calls for decisions on exemptions to the right to buy, the Tories should put aside their dogma and back local control on such issues.
Sarah Boyack talked about East Lothian buses. SNP-led East Lothian Council has shown aptitude and an understanding of community needs, and it is backing community-led transport options in that area.
John Pentland (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): I thank the Conservative Party for bringing the subject for debate. Although I share some common ground with them on the principles that they are promoting, I dare say that we would diverge in how we put those principles into practice.
The Tories’ contribution can be viewed in the context of the Localism Act 2011 and in line with the coalition statement:
“The time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today”.
In my book, that should mean listening to the millions, not the millionaires. It should mean giving more power to ordinary folk, to local communities and to the workers’ and civic organisations that represent thousands and sometimes millions of people. It should mean giving a clear message to the Murdochs, the Soutars and the Trumps of this world that, in a democracy, their views do not count for more than those of anyone else.
Sadly, there are many examples to show that that is not how the world works. Having a Government at Westminster whose Cabinet is overwhelmingly composed of ex-public school millionaires hardly fills us with confidence that their ideas for extending local democracy have much connection with the man in the street, however much they may try to be like the common people. In Scotland, is it right that millionaires think that their money can allow them to ride roughshod over local people, to hold our energy policy to ransom or to bankroll one side of a referendum on the future of our country?
Localism should be about the extension of democracy and giving real powers to communities and local authorities, not making funding dependent on submission to the programme of central Government nor restricting local government funding powers nor having local government shoulder 10 times the cuts burden of the rest of the Scottish budget.
Derek Mackay: Like other colleagues, the member refers to an 89 per cent reduction in the block grant for local government, but does he not recognise that that excludes £2.3 billion that is raised through non-domestic rates, which is passed to local government? The figure to which he refers is only even remotely credible if we exclude that £2.3 billion for local government.
John Pentland: It is clear to local authorities that the minister is making swingeing cuts to their budgets.
The Scottish Government comes across as backing devolution to the limits and beyond, but in practice it draws power to itself or to arm’s-length bodies, which are conveniently lacking in accountability to the Scottish Government when difficult and unpopular decisions are made. The Government is quite willing to deliver and take credit for good news, but it is loth to mention anything bad, unless it can blame Westminster or local government.
Devolution is not just about more power for SNP ministers. The Government should follow the logic of devolution and give more power to local authorities. After all, the principle of subsidiarity is enshrined in European Union law. The idea is that decision making should be decentralised as far as possible, although it is acknowledged that some decisions are better taken at UK or European level, because of their scale or effects—I can see why separatists are not keen on that.
John Pentland: No.
Local democracy should not be about making all local issues subservient to the quest for the holy grail of independence, however independence is defined. Working in partnership with the Scottish Government should not be about local government and communities doing what they are told. There should be constructive dialogue, not meek acceptance and a refusal to rock the referendum boat.
Local government can be a force to be reckoned with when it achieves advances on its own terms, based on local knowledge. For example, in the North Lanarkshire Council area, Labour will fund 5,000 jobs through a wage subsidy scheme, set up an employment commission to harness resources from the private, public and third sectors and create jobs, and finalise arrangements to attract resources for the creation of a new town at the Ravenscraig site. Labour will also support town centres, build 1,000 new homes, provide new kitchens and bathrooms, deal with antisocial residents and continue to improve schools.
Labour will deliver in that regard despite £100 million of cuts in council funding during the next three years. It gets worse: local authorities must find £17 million to make up for the £40 million cut in council tax benefit, and there is no guarantee that councils will not have to pick up the whole bill in future. Public transport fares are rising and services are under attack as a result of reductions in the bus service operators grant. Bus regulation might help, but no doubt it would upset some bus operators. Police services are to be centralised, but is that a cost saving that will come at the expense of accountability?
Localism should be about local people getting together and having power to influence what happens in their communities. It should be about central Government and local government listening to people and working in partnership with them. It should be about understanding communities’ ambitions and aspirations and giving people the tools to help to realise them. The Scottish Government should learn to give power away instead of asking for more all the time.
Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): Jackson Carlaw’s comments were interesting. My colleague Paul Wheelhouse used indeed to be a member of the Conservative Party. Margaret McCulloch MSP, too, was a Conservative candidate as recently as 2007. What does that say about the Conservative Party? People are desperate to leave it. Of course, the only Conservative MP in Scotland, David Mundell, was a Social Democratic Party councillor—something of which I am more than happy to remind him whenever I see him, although for some reason it makes him blush.
Let us look at the Tory record on localism and local government. Did not the Tories abolish Strathclyde Regional Council and the other regions? Did they not abolish the Greater London Council? Did they not abolish town and borough councils, back in the 1970s—a move that many older people rue to this day? Someone mentioned gerrymandering. I remember a local by-election in Renfrewshire, many moons ago, in which the Tories were trounced by the Liberal Democrats—those were the days, Tavish—because they wanted to move Ralston into East Renfrewshire, in a gerrymandering exercise that failed when the people of the area realised that if that happened they would no longer be able to send their children to Paisley grammar school.
When the Tories drew up the local authority boundaries they put together little enclaves, such as South Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire—Eastwood, as it was then—with the exclusive intention of winning local government seats. The Tories took that approach not because it was the best one or because it made strategic sense but for narrow political ends.
If the Tories had any interest in local communities, they would not be insulting communities and showing them contempt, for example by becoming directly involved in candidate selection. We know that because one of them told the Press Association that they were asked to stand to make up the numbers. An 87-year-old Conservative candidate in the North, West and Central Sutherland ward of Highland Council told the PA on 13 April:
“Someone in Edinburgh at the top of the party phoned me up and asked if I would like to help them out. I emphasised I would—but only if they could guarantee that I would not win.”
The ambition is astonishing. He continued:
“I did offer to go up to North, West and Central Sutherland but the party bosses said there was no need to. They told me to do nothing ... All they wanted was my name on the ballot paper. ... That’s why people like me have been asked to stand, not because we have any hope of winning but to split the vote and reduce the chance of the SNP getting in.”
How pathetic. I understand that the 87-year-old candidate was nominated by the young Conservatives, of which he apparently still qualifies as a member.
The Conservative Party is stagnant. Who said that they are
“not going to turn that around overnight”?
It was Ruth Davidson, the Conservatives’ new leader, who until recently was hiding up the back of the chamber somewhere. Ms Davidson’s knowledge of local government is not too great—it is about as good as her knowledge of the Welfare Reform Bill. On 3 April, she said:
“We think that there are areas in which local councils can make a difference, for example in Stirling we are part of the administration.”
Sorry, but the Tories are not part of the administration there.
The Conservatives’ line is nonsense. With their “big society”, they are flogging a dead horse. People are wise to it. The Tories are desperately looking for an idea. The Scotsman branded their phrase “local devolution” as “clumsy” and questioned its lack of detail.
Let us look at Labour, though. We have heard all this nonsense from John Pentland and, before that, Sarah Boyack about cuts to local government. I have some figures that show that if we exclude national health service spend, local government’s share of the Scottish budget has increased from 64 per cent to 69 per cent since the SNP came to power.
Let us look at what Labour said when the SNP came to power. Wendy Alexander said, in her legendary hungry caterpillar speech:
“More tellingly, the height of Mr Swinney’s ambitions is a target that ... is less than half that set for the rest of the United Kingdom. That is even though we in Scotland start from a larger public sector base ... Although we had warm words from Mr Swinney, we ... start fatter than the rest of the UK, continue to slim more slowly ... and have a higher target weight at the end of the day when it comes to getting best value for Scottish taxpayers.”
She went on to say that she had
“not laid out what we would do in the next spending review. However, it is not ambitious to suggest a target that is half that of the UK’s and only to match what was done for the past three years.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2007; c 139-140.]
Labour was calling for double the efficiency savings introduced by the SNP and, unlike the SNP’s, they would be top sliced. On 25 June 2008, I asked about that and was advised by Don Peebles that “the only logical consequence” of that Labour policy would be a £310 million reduction every year for local government. Let us not have any crocodile tears from Labour. If Wendy Alexander, who, three months later, was unopposed as Labour leader, had been in, there would have been a £1.5 billion cut from budgets.
Of the 348 Labour councillors elected in 2007, 32 are now standing against Labour. In December, when Johann Lamont was elected Labour leader, there were nine Labour councillors in her Pollok constituency. Only four months later, six of those councillors are standing against the Labour Party, showing the chronic lack of confidence in the Labour Party, and indeed in Ms Lamont’s leadership, among her own councillors.
We have abolished ring fencing.
On council tax, I was interested to hear Sarah Boyack say that all local areas are putting up their own manifestos. That includes her own area of Edinburgh, where they are attacking the SNP for giving too much money to Glasgow.
On the council tax freeze, Anas Sarwar said:
“I don’t think that’s credible. I don’t think that’s progressive.”
Of course, Labour’s manifesto for Edinburgh does not even mention it. After rubbishing the council tax freeze, Labour is now proposing a five-year council tax freeze in Glasgow. It is a party desperate not to win but to survive in local government next week. It will be in for a real drubbing, just like the Conservatives.
As for the Liberals, with 84 fewer candidates, that is about as much of a mention as they need to be given.
Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con): I was a bit disappointed with the minister this morning when he said that he was surprised that Mr Carlaw had not talked about policy. I am not quite sure what speech the minister was listening to, because Mr Carlaw spelled out about six or seven things that the Conservative Party would do. However, let me try a little bit on education.
“When it comes to our schools, the one-size-fits-all approach does not work and, as a result, there is some need to rethink the prevailing orthodoxy and ensure there is greater diversity in the school system.”
Those are not my words but those of one Michael Russell, author of “Grasping the Thistle”, which was published in 2006. Then, in November 2010, the same Michael Russell, who was by then an exalted cabinet secretary, told Parliament:
“There is a strong case for talking about school autonomy and for relating the curriculum for excellence to the autonomy of teachers.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2010; c 30345.]
In October 2011, just after David Cameron published his report into school management, Michael Russell acknowledged that
“many schools across Scotland ... have benefited from having far greater control of their own management.”
He went on to say that he wanted to work with schools and parents and local communities so that they could take advantage of opportunities for a greater say over their affairs.
For once, I cannot fault the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning’s pronouncements. However, I suggest that the current evidence makes it very hard for any politician to work against those sentiments—indeed, I noticed in The Scotsman yesterday Des McNulty writing on a similar theme—so let us look at the reasons why the wind of change is in the air and then measure that against the record of the SNP Government.
First, the curriculum for excellence, the principles of which have secured cross-party agreement, is based on the fact that children perform very much better when their learning is tailored to their individual needs and when that learning, as well as embodying the necessary traditional knowledge, is made specifically relevant to the circumstances of their own school and local community. The whole philosophy around the curriculum for excellence is one of seeking a rich educational experience by applying the basic core material to the diverse needs of different pupils and different schools. It tries to draw back from overprescriptive learning, excessive testing and overdependence on educational theory.
That is exactly why the recent fuss over how ready schools are to undertake the new exams should never have happened. It was perfectly understandable that schools, which have different structures and different needs, would be ready at different times, so I am still at a loss to see why the cabinet secretary expected otherwise. Instead of listening to his own advice from 2006, he got himself locked into a mindset that the state knew better than schools and parents.
What the curriculum for excellence seeks to do is to swap the acceptance of mediocrity in too many schools for an aspiration for excellence.
Jamie Hepburn (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP): The member said that there is an acceptance of mediocrity in too many schools. That is a scandalous accusation. Can the member name one school in which the headteacher accepts mediocrity?
Liz Smith: I would ask the member to have a look at Scottish schools’ attainment levels. What is even more important is that there is an acceptance across the political spectrum and within the education establishment that we are not aspiring to enough excellence. That is one reason why all parties, including the SNP, have signed up to the curriculum for excellence. We have had an acceptance of mediocrity and our results show it.
What is interesting in all of this is that Michael Russell is in difficulty about where we go from here. I know that he does not like being told by a Tory about successes south of the border when it comes to changing the focus of school management, so if he will not take it from David Cameron, the Prime Minister, let us hope that he will take it from David Cameron, his namesake in Scotland, whom Michael Russell charged with looking at school reform.
David Cameron looked around the world for examples of school successes—perhaps this might help Mr Hepburn—and drew on the European Commission study of 2007 that pointed to school successes in Belgium, the Netherlands and Latvia as a result of increased teacher autonomy; he highlighted the high value attached to the teaching profession in Sweden and Finland because of the extent of teacher autonomy; he produced evidence from Latin America, where no fewer than seven countries demonstrated that the greatest success was found where there was the greatest degree of school management; and he said that there were lessons to be learned from south of the border, where the greatest desire for our free schools has been in the most deprived areas. Indeed, we know that as of February this year 50 per cent of new free schools have come from the 30 per cent most deprived areas—that tells us something.
Then there are the comments from the Scottish rural schools network that persistently demonstrate how creeping centralisation is damaging education in some of Scotland’s most rural areas. Sandy Longmuir and his colleagues have made plain their grave concerns about what they say is the “mechanistic vision” of some local authorities and central Government that pays little regard to the context of local communities. The same principles were highlighted by David Berry—an SNP councillor, no less—in East Lothian when he considered the model of trust schools.
At the weekend, we learned about the restrictions on placing requests in Edinburgh—the fact that a record number of parents are being refused places for their children at their first-choice primary school. Local authorities throughout Scotland are struggling to meet local demand, which suggests that something radical must be done to change the system.
It interests me that there is not only a growing demand from parents and local communities but a desire for change among the educational establishment. I contend that there is compelling educational, social, philosophical, economic and, now, political evidence that it is time to introduce devolution and support our local communities.
Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): There is something Orwellian about the debate. The Conservatives are calling things black when they know that they are white, and all the Opposition parties seem to have picked up on the Liberal Democrats’ war cry of centralisation. They say that the SNP is centralising everything and taking power away from local authorities, taking it away from local communities and taking it all to itself.
However, actions speak louder than words. I have been a councillor with Highland Council for the past nine years and, therefore, can make comparisons with the Scottish Labour-Liberal Executive—what a mouthful that is—and then the minority Scottish Government, which was in charge of devolving budgets to local authorities.
Between 2003 and 2007, Highland Council had to deal with two big issues—moneys for many issues were ring-fenced, which made life difficult for it, but two issues were really extraordinary. One was the need for real capital investment in new schools, for which the council had its own plan. However, that plan was overruled by the only show in town—the Labour Party enforcing the private finance initiative/public-private partnership on local government. We now have extraordinary debt and PFI/PPP is well reported, well recorded and, in fact, increasingly recognised by people who thought that it was a good idea at the time to have been a complete and utter disaster for local authorities. It was an imposition that we will struggle to live with for a long time to come.
Dr Richard Simpson (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): Cue a proposal for the Scottish Futures Trust and the non-profit distributing model, which is a lovely new name, just as PPP was a new name for PFI. Audit Scotland has stated that the non-profit distributing model is identical to PPP, so the Scottish Futures Trust’s building programme will be the same as PPP.
Jean Urquhart: I am sorry, but Audit Scotland told us that the PFI programme was acceptable. We need to look at some of the advice that we take. The difference is that our model is not for profit.
Dr Simpson: The builders, architects and suppliers all make a profit. It is just a new form of PPP.
Jean Urquhart: I do not accept that “non-profit distributing model” is only a term. A graph of the repayments for a school that is built under the PFI programme and one that is built under what we recommend shows an enormous difference.
Second only to that in its breathtaking control and centralisation was the Labour Party’s control of local authority housing and its brave new world of housing stock transfer. It cost Highland Council something in the region of £1.4 million—that is only an average figure—to build a case, with a gun at its back, to show that its tenants would like the housing stock to be transferred. In fact, we did not convince all our tenants.
We have Mrs Thatcher to thank for the ballot that we had. When she had the crazy idea of selling off all our council houses, she wrote it into legislation that no tenant should have a new landlord imposed on them, which meant that the Labour Party could not simply move forward and transfer the housing stock; it had to ask the people. We must give the Tories credit for that. However, we should not give the Labour Party any credit for that kind of blackmail and for forcing local authorities to do something so that it could achieve its own ambition. Fortunately—in one respect—Highland Council tenants voted overwhelmingly to keep the council as their landlord, but that means that the council now suffers from a housing debt, because the sweetener was that the debt of £140 million would have been cleared if there was a housing stock transfer. In the event of people having their say and not going for housing stock transfer, they would be punished, to the extent that 50 per cent of income from their rent now does nothing more than service a housing debt.
The Liberal Democrats promised to clear that housing debt. In fact, Danny Alexander himself, standing in the self-same region, declared in his leaflet that one of his top priorities would be to clear the housing debt, because he knows the poverty that it brings to our housing stock in Highland Council. That was an empty promise.
Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con): The member, a Highland councillor, mentioned that the tenants are being punished, because more than 50 per cent of rental income is used to pay interest. Will she also admit that the SNP campaigned against the transfer of the housing stock and the opportunity for that debt to be paid off?
Jean Urquhart: Absolutely. We campaigned strongly so that Scotland could keep—
Jean Urquhart: No. Why would we transfer a really valuable asset to a private housing company for the price of £15 million? Of course we campaigned against that.
Jean Urquhart: I am sorry that this has taken quite so long.
The unfencing of moneys from central Government equated to £54 million for Highland Council. Together with the single outcome agreement, that made an enormous difference to Highland Council. Council members of all parties were delighted with the ability to spend the money in the areas where it was most needed.
Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab): I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am an elected member of Renfrewshire Council for one more week.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on localism. As other members have said, the debate is timely, given the imminence of the council elections, which will be held a week today.
I will talk, as many other Labour members have done, about the importance that Labour places on local democracy, on communities and local people being listened to, and on local issues being dealt with at a local level.
At the council elections, Labour councillors are putting local issues and local people’s concerns at the forefront of our campaign. That contrasts starkly with the SNP’s council election campaign, which appears to be not about local people but about one person: Alex Salmond, the First Minister.
Neil Bibby: I would like to make some progress.
Over the past few weeks, the SNP campaign has had Alex Salmond on leaflets, Alex Salmond on letters and Alex Salmond on e-mails. I have even heard of Alex Salmond’s face being on SNP posters on McGill’s buses in Renfrewshire. The election campaign is about local issues; it is not about one person—Alex Salmond.
Like many other members, during the campaign I have been knocking on doors and talking to voters. I have been saying to people in Renfrewshire that, despite his prominence in the SNP’s council election campaign, Alex Salmond will not clean up the dog mess at the end of the street, he will not fix the potholes, he will not put the school bus back on and neither he nor his special adviser will provide meals for the elderly—unless, of course, the person concerned happens to be Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump. Those services are delivered by dedicated council staff, who do a good job in difficult circumstances. The decisions that are made about those services should be made by local councillors who are elected by local people.
There will always be a debate about what powers should sit where. A balance needs to be struck. Some decisions should be made at a local level to give people a say over local issues, but some should be made at a national level in order to ensure that there is a minimum standard of service and a strategic oversight of how the services are delivered.
Under the SNP Scottish Government, however, there appears to be plenty of willingness to call for more powers from the UK Government but a reluctance to give more power and influence to local authorities. The SNP separation rhetoric—about being able to make our own decisions and do what we want—is exactly the same as the argument that is made about why local councils and communities should have more of a say. If the SNP accepts that that is not straightforward in a Scottish context, it should accept that it is not straightforward in a UK context either.
Frankly, the real issue that we have with local services at the moment is that they, and local authority budgets, are being cut by the SNP Government. We can talk about powers for local authorities to deliver local services all that we want, but if local authorities do not have the appropriate finances, we will not be able to improve communities and people’s lives.
Local authorities cannot give more money to local area committees, community councils, tenants associations or parent councils if their own budgets are being cut. Councils need to take tough decisions, because the fact is that local authorities are bearing nearly 90 per cent of the Scottish Government cuts. The figures that make up that 90 per cent come from the Scottish Government’s budget. Those real-terms cuts to local authority budgets come to 5.7 per cent—or a staggering £1.6 billion—over the next three years. The Tories are cutting the Scottish Government budget by 2.2 per cent in real terms. When it comes to local government cuts, the SNP is simply even worse than the Tories.
Kenneth Gibson: Do you not accept that we have a limited and declining budget and that the share of money that is now going to local government is now higher than it was when the SNP came to power? If you think that local government should get additional funding, can you please tell us where that funding should come from?
Neil Bibby: It does not matter how Mr Gibson tries to dress it up; the fact is that local government is facing swingeing cuts, and £1 billion of those cuts are coming from the SNP’s decision to pass them on to local authorities. That means that we have £600 million of Tory council cuts and £1 billion of SNP council cuts. I know that that is an uncomfortable fact for the SNP, because I know that SNP members, including the Minister for Local Government and Planning, who was the leader of Renfrewshire Council, have stated that all council cuts were the fault of the UK Government, but that is simply not the case.
Those cuts mean that local councils cannot protect local communities, and that has a human cost. Vulnerable people—young and old—who rely on council services lose out.
George Adam (Paisley) (SNP): If, as Mr Bibby is stating, everything is to do with the people in the communities that he serves, can he say, as a member of Renfrewshire Council, why the Labour Party has not put pen to paper to promote a budget that will do anything for any vulnerable member of our society in Renfrewshire? Why has it not taken responsibility? Can the member answer that one?
Neil Bibby: I say to George Adam that the Labour group has put pen to paper to produce alternative budgets over the past five years, and what he is saying is simply not true—[Interruption.] Perhaps he would like to explain why, in Renfrewshire, there are 200 fewer teachers; why classroom assistants are being cut; why nurseries, primary schools, libraries and community centres are being closed; why charges for the elderly are doubling; why people with learning disabilities are having to pay for transport to day care centres; and why there is a barmy plan to take teachers out the classroom and replace them with non-teaching staff. All those cuts are against the wishes of people in Renfrewshire. I wish that George Adam had taken the opportunity to apologise to them.
Of course, councils can always spend their money more efficiently. For example, in Renfrewshire, at a time when services were being cut, the SNP council should never have voted to give senior bosses a 23 per cent pay rise or £15,000 cheques to former “X Factor” contestants to do 15 minutes’ work and press a button switching on Paisley’s Christmas lights.
Labour in Renfrewshire will do things differently and I hope that people in Renfrewshire will vote Labour in the council elections in May. We simply cannot continue with the current level of local authority cuts, which are undermining local democracy.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Before I call the next speaker, I remind members that they ought to be courteous to each other at all times in the chamber, and I also remind them to speak through the Presiding Officer.
Jamie Hepburn (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP): I could not help but notice that, in setting out his concern that Alex Salmond seems to be prominent on some SNP literature, Neil Bibby singularly failed to explain why Johann Lamont does not feature on any of the Labour Party literature that is going out in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth. I can only imagine why that might be the case.
In case Jackson Carlaw seeks to intervene on me, although I see that he is leaving the chamber, I state clearly for the record that I was never a Tory in my youth and I do not plan on being one in the future—
Jamie Hepburn: —despite Mr Johnstone asking me to join now.
I thank the Tories for bringing this debate on the concepts of localism to the chamber. It promised to be interesting, but I think that it has failed to live up to that promise, which is a shame. It has been characterised by the Tory party’s total and utter failure to define what it means by localism. Jackson Carlaw stated at the outset that he would not take up his entire allocated time. He spent the first two minutes giving us an admittedly entertaining pontification on a hypothetical leadership contest for the SNP. He even found time to refer to French history, which I thought was remarkably brave for a member of a party that has always adopted a let-them-eat-cake attitude where the Scottish people are concerned. However, it is just as well that he used his time in that fashion, as he had little to say on what the Tories mean by localism.
It is a little rich for the Conservative and Unionist party to come to the chamber and masquerade as the party of real devolution, given that it opposed the creation of this place and devolution for Scotland. Its approach is also rich in another sense, in that the Tory motion refers to the SNP’s “rhetoric” regarding centralisation, yet the Tory talk of localism seems to be merely empty rhetoric.
I have looked over some debates from years gone by in the Official Report, and I note that on 15 September 2011 Mary Scanlon was concerned about
“The postcode lottery with regard to care”.
On the same day, Ruth Davidson was concerned about college bursaries and their
“first-come, first-served postcode-lottery nature.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2011; c 1762, 1814.]
On 28 October 2010, Margaret Mitchell was concerned about the “postcode lottery” in relation to the young carers strategy. It is not illegitimate to raise such concerns, but what is meant by the term “postcode lottery”? It is used to criticise different levels of service provision on an area-by-area basis, but is that not in itself localism? I suggest that, at best, the Conservative Party is muddled on the issue.
Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con): Does the member not realise that what is being advocated is a level playing field? The funds should be available for local authorities to spend them in the best interests of providing services to people such as unpaid carers. It is quite simple.
Jamie Hepburn: The member fails to understand the point that I have made. That would still allow for the postcode lottery. On that basis, I hope that we will never again hear the term from the Tory benches.
Let us talk about the facts of the matter. This is not a centralising SNP Administration. The Government has worked with local government to empower it through the ending of ring fencing. The concordat may be scoffed at and traduced from all other sides, but it is an entirely new approach to dealing with local government. It is a partnership approach that we have not seen before. We saw the process of diktat from the Scottish Executive to local government before the SNP created the local government concordat in tandem with local authorities.
We saw an example of that collaborative approach in recent days, as the Scottish Government and COSLA came together to breach the gap in council tax benefit that the Westminster Government is handing to the Scottish Government. It is a shame that Labour members cannot bring themselves to welcome that protection for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
I also disagree that the reforms to the police and fire services are a centralising move. Paul Wheelhouse did well to remind us that the Labour Party supported the creation of a single police force and a single fire service.
Sarah Boyack: Will the member clarify the point about local accountability and local financial influence on the operation of the new police force? We are in favour of the elimination of duplication, but we are not in favour of the eradication and removal of local accountability.
Jamie Hepburn: I believe that there will be increased local accountability. It is clear that operational issues will remain a matter for senior police officers. At the moment in Strathclyde, for example, many local issues of concern are not really being dealt with by a large police board and a large fire board. With the creation of local police and fire committees on a local authority to local authority basis, there could be increased local accountability.
I refer briefly to concerns about compulsory redundancies that Labour raised. It is interesting that John Pentland referred to North Lanarkshire Labour’s position of creating 5,000 jobs for North Lanarkshire. What Mr Pentland and Ms Boyack did not mention, of course, is that there have been redundancies for low-paid workers and bonuses have been handed to senior executives in Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire. Mr Bibby would do well to take that point on board. We have an SNP Government that has not undertaken compulsory redundancies and, in going forward to the local government election, the SNP is promising not to have compulsory redundancies where it takes control of councils. Members should rest assured that the SNP will take control of more councils next Thursday.
Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD): I apologise for having to leave the chamber before the end of the debate, due to a meeting.
I confess that I welcome the fact that we are debating the importance of local government in Scotland now and in the future and of localism, if we must call it that. “Localism” seems a ghastly word to me. However, I sense that this is a slight sideshow to the events that are taking place in other places—not perhaps in the court down in London, where Leveson is hearing Rupert Murdoch for the second day, but probably more those that are taking place in the First Minister’s office. It is almost one of those days on which I think that there should be a fly or camera on the wall. Can members imagine the scene? There is an hour and a half to go before First Minister’s question time. How many advisers have been thrown out and how many mobile phones have been chucked across the room as the First Minister tries to figure out a way to answer the questions that he will be asked about the lobbying that he has been doing for Rupert Murdoch and News International?
Kenny Gibson, Paul Wheelhouse and Liz Smith have mentioned The Scotsman—I refer members to my entry in the register of interests. I thought that The Guardian’s leader today was better. Perhaps members who quoted The Scotsman—nationalist members in particular—might want to look at The Guardian, which says that, “Yes”, Rupert Murdoch
“liked Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, and, yes, the Scottish Sun was swinging towards endorsing him. And, yes, Salmond had offered to help out News Corp. But these were all unconnected.”
Tavish Scott: I was just going to come on to a point about the election, about which Mr Mackay made a point in his opening line. He did not make a point about localism; he made a point about the election. I presume that he made his comments in his capacity as the local government minister—or did he do so more in his capacity as the SNP’s election campaign chair? I wonder which is the case. Perhaps he could reflect on that in his closing remarks.
When Mr Mackay wants to reflect on the election, he might also want to reflect on the fact that many people in Scotland will reflect on the past three days of nationalism more than anything else when they vote.
On localism, Mr Mackay has been keen to defend his police proposals. [Interruption.] I hear Kenny Gibson having a go at me from a sedentary position. If he wants to stand up and explain his boss’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch, I will be more than happy to take his intervention. [Interruption.] That is the subject that everyone in Scotland is talking about right now, and he does not like that.
Kenneth Gibson: Perhaps the member can explain why the Liberal Democrats have 84 fewer candidates in the election. It is no wonder that he is trying to take us on to a side issue: his party is on the verge of total collapse. In North Ayrshire, where I am an MSP, the Liberal Democrats came sixth in the list behind the pensioners and the Greens last year. They have four fewer candidates than the Socialist Labour Party. Will the member tell us why the Lib Dems have 84 fewer candidates, as this is a debate about local government?
Tavish Scott: Kenny Gibson really wanted to get that off his chest and he looks so much better for having done so, so I will leave him to cogitate on that fact.
Tavish Scott: I have just been told that I cannot give an answer.
On the subject of localism, I want to focus on police reform, which Mr Mackay was so keen to tell us was a great thing. As Sarah Boyack rightly said, ministers will be in control and will appoint the chief constable. [Interruption.] I see Mr Mackay shaking his head. He should read his own bill—it is right there. Ministers will appoint the board that will appoint the chief constable. The senior tier of the police, which I used to believe were independent from Government, will be appointed by ministers. It does not matter which Government is introducing it—it is an appalling principle to establish in Scotland and I cannot believe that nationalists support it.
Sarah Boyack was also right about the local police plan. Senior police officers in my part of Scotland have told me that the idea that any council will be able to do anything about the proposed plan is neither here nor there; the reality is that it will be a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
Tavish Scott: If Mr Mackay can show me the section in his bill that suggests otherwise, I will be very happy to take his intervention.
Derek Mackay: Does the member not welcome the Government direction that local accountability will be delivered through local partnerships with police? Local councils will be given flexibility on the arrangements that they reach with their local police forces and there will be a designated senior local officer.
Tavish Scott: The minister just made my point for me when he talked about “the Government direction”. If the chamber needed to know any more about the Scottish National Party and its approach to local events, Mr Mackay just gave it away with that phrase.
Tavish Scott: I am just about to deal with the area that the member represents. I believe that Liz Smith mentioned Mike Russell, who, according to the Scottish Government website, is in Budapest today
Tavish Scott: We cannot keep up with Mr Russell, but he is in Budapest today, presumably because he did not want to talk about Rupert.
However, I point out to Mr Mackay that, in The Herald the other day, Mr Russell attacked Strathclyde Police for cutting police officers in Mull. On the one hand, we have statements from Scottish nationalist ministers that there will be no cuts or changes as a result of the move and great protestations about how wonderful it is that they have put these extra bobbies on the beat. On the other hand, we have in Tuesday’s Herald Mr Russell, a Cabinet minister in this Government, slamming Strathclyde Police for cutting police officers. It is no wonder that he is in Budapest.
I will briefly mention local government finance, which, after all, is the minister’s responsibility. I thought it very brave of Mr Mackay to mention the historic concordat; Mr Salmond gave it an outing at every question time for three years but we never hear about it any more. The reality of local government finance is very simple. There used to be a principle that local councillors were financially accountable; indeed, the nationalists used to believe as much. Now that they have a majority, they could implement local income tax, a move that I would strongly support, and reintroduce financial accountability for local members. The fact that they do not do so says everything that we need to know about the SNP.
Dennis Robertson (Aberdeenshire West) (SNP): Before he leaves the chamber, I should tell Tavish Scott that I agree with him on one point: I do not like the word “localism” either. However, that is the only thing that we agree on.
Given the subject that we are debating, it is appropriate that we look at what is being done locally for our people. I believe that this Government and the SNP as a party listen; indeed, that is probably why we returned 69 MSPs at the last Scottish election. This is a party that listens to the people, their aspirations and their vision and we will continue to listen and to devolve things down to a local level.
I am very fortunate to be the MSP for Aberdeenshire West, where we have CPPs that have delivered locally for people by listening to what they are looking for and require in their communities. The SNP Government has also funded the regeneration of our town centres and cities because that is what the local people wanted. Our communities ask for localisation, and I believe that we deliver it.
Margaret Mitchell: The member mentioned the town centre regeneration fund. Does he share my regret that it has been discontinued?
Dennis Robertson: My understanding is that even more money is going into local regeneration of conservation areas.
It is always regrettable when a Government does not have the funding to do all the things that it wishes to do, and this Government is restricted in how it can allocate its budget, given the £1.3 billion cut in our funding from the Tory and Lib Dem Government at Westminster.
We are looking at what people need locally. People need local services to manage how they live in their communities. Because of the Tory and Lib Dem Government cuts, there will be more vulnerable people in our communities. The Government is doing everything that it can to assuage the damage that will be done under the Welfare Reform Act 2012. I am already getting lots of e-mails and other mail from people who are already feeling the impact and are anxious about their vulnerability to the welfare cuts. In the local elections, people will remember where the cuts are coming from, and on their ballot papers, they will transfer their votes to show that they give no importance to the Conservative and Lib Dem Government at Westminster. The people will deliver that message locally through the ballot box.
Mary Scanlon: Across Scotland, 43 per cent of people who are on benefits have a mental health problem, and they have largely been isolated and ignored. Does the member agree that the Welfare Reform Act 2012 will support people to get into work and for 24 months while they are in work? Is that not progress?
Dennis Robertson: Oh dear. I wish that I could agree with Mary Scanlon, but I cannot. At the end of the day, there need to be places and opportunities for people to take up. She rightly mentions people who have mental health problems. Does she not understand that they are some of our most vulnerable people and that the prospect of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 is exacerbating their mental health problems?
I will move on to education, which Liz Smith mentioned, and, in particular, education in rural areas. As I said, I am fortunate enough to be the MSP for Aberdeenshire West, which is primarily a rural area. I am grateful to the Government for the legislation that protects our rural schools, and to the cabinet secretary for setting up the commission that will try to understand them, in order to offer them more protection. Was Jackson Carlaw actually proposing some form of elitism by proposing that we have independent schools? I would never support that.
We must ensure that we protect our rural communities because they are the lifeblood of Scotland. Our rural communities require an infrastructure that will support local businesses, local schools and local industry. Broadband has been supported by the Government and by Alex Neil, and our aspiration is to deliver what is needed, despite the protestations from some Conservatives about mobile phone masts and where they should be located. I add that when planning applications in my constituency have come to the Government for approval, they have been turned down. As the minister said earlier, it is not always the case that applications are successful when they come to the Government on appeal.
We will listen to the people and, on 3 May, the people will deliver. I suspect that Jackson Carlaw may come back into the chamber wondering whether he needs to put more water in his bath next time.
John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP): I agree with the Unison briefing and its comment that it believes in subsidiarity and devolving power to the lowest level of competent democratic authority, but that it can often be unclear what the advocates of localism really mean. Their wider agenda often provides plenty of clues. Genuine localism should be about promoting the best interests of local people and communities. We are right to be suspicious of who is promoting localism today: a party that is controlled by Westminster, that rejected more autonomy under Murdo Fraser, and that thinks that the UK is a good thing.
We could say a lot of things about localism. We could say that a lot of good things are happening. First, for the first time in quite a while, this year’s local government elections are being held on a separate day from elections to the Parliament, despite the long-term resistance of Labour in Glasgow. I hope that that means that we can concentrate on local issues.
Secondly, the relationship between the Scottish Government and local government is greatly improved. The concordat represents a vast improvement on the previous top-down approach. I was a councillor from 1999 until 2007 under the Labour-Lib Dem Administration, and long and many were the complaints from all parties in Glasgow and COSLA about centralisation and the giving of lumps of money for fixed purposes that were not local priorities. There has been a great improvement in that respect.
Thirdly, it is excellent that the right to buy has been severely restricted. The right to buy was imposed at a UK level and no attention was paid to local situations or problems. Now, councils and housing associations can do what is best for their local communities.
However, I accept that local is not always best. With regard to the police, there is broad agreement that a regional approach has not been ideal. On many police issues, we are moving towards working at a national level, but with substantial input at council level and—perhaps even more importantly—at constituency and ward level. I know that the police will move resources to the wards in my constituency that have the greatest need.
Liz Smith mentioned schools. In my area, I see little appetite among parents for running schools themselves. When they were asked about that, there was widespread agreement that they did not want to run schools.
Liz Smith: If the member does not agree with me, what does he think about Sandy Longmuir’s analysis—which I think relates to Argyll and Bute Council—that
“local authorities are attempting to impose a mechanistic vision of education”—
just as the Scottish Government is doing—
“where all children—regardless of the context of the communities in which they live—will receive exactly the same sort of education”?
That is wrong.
John Mason: I was just about to say that headteachers have a fair degree of autonomy already and that I would be happy for that to increase. However, Liz Smith should listen to parents. If she listened to parents in my constituency, she would find that they are not demanding to run schools.
I recently visited St Ambrose high school, which happens to be in the Deputy Presiding Officer’s constituency, but a third of the pupils at which come from my constituency. Some really exciting ideas are being put into place there under the curriculum for excellence. For example, a musical theatre will involve the English and music departments working together, and the fact that the school is to have a new building on the edge of a country park will mean that geography and science departments will do joint work. That is the kind of localism that I want to see, and it is happening under the present system.
There is, of course, room for improvement. One big improvement would be not to have list MSPs who cover such wide areas and to introduce the single transferable vote system, which would provide much more local representation but would still be a proportional representation system.
There is room for improvement in Glasgow, where things are far too centralised. A much more local system is needed. Some positive signs have emerged. For example, in Byres Road, premises can have later licensing hours, but such exceptions are extremely unusual. Under Labour, Glasgow City Council has been far too centralised. I understand that in Highland Council, for example, more power is given to area committees. If folk in the east end of Glasgow want the pubs or off-licences to close at a slightly different time, why should they not be listened to?
Similarly, planning in Glasgow has been far too centralised. The result has been that the west end has become more and more crowded, while the east and the north have vast tracts of empty land. A more localised approach needs to be adopted. The community planning partnership in Glasgow has also been far too centralised. Glasgow is not just one community; it is many communities, and they want a bit more power to make decisions.
As far as localism is concerned, there are areas that are worth exploring. For example, in the longer term, I would like councils to have the power to set their own rates of local income tax or even land valuation tax. I do not see why councils should not have the power to choose from a slate of possibilities, including a tourist or bed tax. Such legislation has been implemented in the past—for example, councils were allowed to opt in to legislation on the drinking of alcohol outside. That approach has proved highly successful.
Community councils have not had much of a mention, but if we believe in localism, how can we avoid talking about them? We need to consider whether we should give them more powers, although some of them might not want that.
John Mason: It is ironic that the party that most strongly opposes more powers coming to Scotland claims to support localism. The motion says that we need to
“return decision-making to Scottish communities.”
How about we start with the Tories accepting that we should return decision making to the Scottish community as a whole?
Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): My speech follows one of the most interesting and thought-provoking speeches in the debate. Tempted though I am to divert from what I had wanted to say, I will resist that and I will analyse John Mason’s speech at greater length before I respond to it.
We are pointing out the Government’s centralising power grab from local authorities. However, I take a positive approach and want to introduce new ideas to Parliament, so the best thing that I can do is give an example of something that the Government could do that would decentralise power, and would allow people to express their views locally and have services that suit their needs.
The idea came to me initially as a result of the Labour Party’s decision to discuss bus transport in its debating time in Parliament last week. I did not take the Labour Party’s motion for granted; instead, I got on the phone and spoke to Conservative candidates across Scotland, particularly in our big cities, to find out whether bus services are in the crisis that the Labour Party described. Sure enough, the evidence is that the Labour Party is right; bus services in Scotland are in crisis.
What has provoked that crisis? An analysis of funding of bus services appears to indicate that a healthy £250 million a year is going from the Government to buses. The problem is that 80 per cent of that is the uncontrollable cost of providing concessionary travel—the figure is growing—while 20 per cent is the bus service operators grant, which is shrinking by £10 million this year. The change in the bus service operators grant that the Government has implemented since the grant was devolved from Westminster has caused a distortion.
Alex Johnstone: I will listen to what the minister has to say, but I need to continue.
Derek Mackay: Does Alex Johnstone recognise that the cost of fuel has an impact on the running of bus operations across the country and that the cost is not determined locally or in Scotland, but by the UK Government—which, of course, has access to our resources?
Alex Johnstone: I concede that the cost of fuel is significant.
The bus service operators grant used to be a payment that was made against fuel costs, but the Government decided—rightly, in some respects—to move from a fuel-based payment to one that is based on mileage. The effect is that the subsidy, which has been reduced, is distorted because more is paid to longer-distance services in rural areas and rather less is paid to services in and around towns and cities. That is causing the problem that bus companies are using fares to cross-subsidise the cost of the concessionary travel scheme, and where companies cannot make services pay, those services are being withdrawn entirely. That is because of the Scottish Government’s decisions on the bus service operators grant.
Alex Johnstone: John Finnie will excuse me; I cannot take an intervention.
That brings me to the subject that I want to discuss—a document that the Department for Transport published in March 2012, entitled “Green Light for Better Buses”, which I want to bring to members’ attention. The Westminster Government has not stopped at devolving the bus service operators grant to the Scottish Government; it now has proposals to devolve the BSOG to local authorities in England. That will allow local decisions to be made and will ensure that services are properly targeted to meet the needs of areas. It is already up to councils to decide which services to put out to tender in their areas to fill gaps in the network of bus routes that are run by bus companies. Given that, the Government in the south believes that it would make more sense for the BSOG to be paid to local authorities rather than to bus companies.
Mike MacKenzie: Was it Margaret Thatcher who said that any person over the age of 30 who used a bus could consider themselves a failure?
Alex Johnstone: I have no idea how Mike MacKenzie wishes to travel.
It is the UK Government’s intention that the money, once paid to local authorities, will be de-ring-fenced. That will give local authorities the opportunity to tailor provision of funds to the services that they require. That includes provision of community bus travel, where it is necessary and where it is a more suitable use for the resource.
I bring that to the Scottish Government’s attention because the UK Government’s approach is an example of Government trusting local decision making and passing resource into the hands of those who can most effectively decide what is appropriate for their local communities. That approach also avoids gross distortions such as this Government’s centralised approach to allocation of bus service operators grants has already caused and will continue to cause, if it does not re-target its efforts.
I mentioned that the grant has already been cut by 10 per cent in the current year. That example is to encourage the Government to take up my offer, and to take up the opportunity to devolve the funding to local authorities before the grant does not exist at all.
Mike MacKenzie (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): I am pleased to contribute to the debate, although I am puzzled that the Conservatives have come so late to the subject. This Government has been advancing a policy of localism since 2007, and the SNP has been preaching localism for much longer than that—since long before 2007, when we were able to form the Scottish Government and put the principles of localism into practice.
Perhaps the Conservatives recognise a need to have at least the shreds of an underlying political ideology. The back-of-an-envelope thinking that lay behind the Conservatives’ big idea of a big society has not really progressed beyond the back of that original envelope. Perhaps the Conservatives feel a need to try and graft some political meat on to the skeletal remains—apart, of course, from its giving tax breaks to the rich—of what the Conservative Party stood for.
As for the Labour Party, I was concerned to hear Ms Boyack criticise the SNP on the matter of council house building. The sad fact is that while it was in government in Scotland, the Labour Party lacked the political courage to do away with the Tory right-to-buy policy. We did away with it, and council house building has begun to flourish again in Scotland over the past few years.
Sarah Boyack: Would Mike MacKenzie like to tell us how the cuts to the housing grant have affected housing association construction rates?
Mike MacKenzie: Through the innovation and investment fund a number of housing associations have come up with some really good, innovative housing projects that have delivered far better value for money than we ever dreamed of under the previous Administration.
It is perhaps worth going through some of the localism policies that this Government has implemented. We have heard about the concordat with local authorities, the single outcome agreements and the abolition of ring fencing. Those policies are all about a new mature relationship between national and local government, whereby local authorities are empowered and are free to spend their resources on local priorities.
However, I agree that it is a big pity that not all councils have embraced that opportunity as well as they might have done. If members are unhappy with the unwillingness of their local councils to embrace those principles, as I am unhappy with my council in Argyll and Bute—perhaps Mr McGrigor is too—they will have the same opportunity as I will have next week to vote for a better local administration. I suspect, however, that Conservative votes will largely be wasted votes, simply because the Conservatives lack the number of candidates for the votes to have any real effect.
Turning to planning, I can only contrast what I am hearing here today with Mr Cameron’s policies in England, where he seems to be riding roughshod over local councils. I am curious about the difference between what is happening in England and what is happening in Scotland in planning terms, because this Government implemented and improved the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006, which has empowered local authorities to deal with smaller—
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Mike MacKenzie said that the Conservatives have a small number of candidates. I tell him that we have candidates in all the wards in Argyll and Bute Council and in every ward across the Highlands and Islands.
Mike MacKenzie: Of course, Jamie McGrigor will know that a number of independent candidates are secret Tories who are frightened to admit it.
Jamie McGrigor rose—
Jamie McGrigor: On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The member has misled the Parliament by saying that Conservative candidates are independent candidates. If I may say so, he is talking rubbish.
Mike MacKenzie: I point out that I did not accept a second intervention from Mr McGrigor. To accept one was quite generous.
Local planning authorities now have full powers to deal as they see fit with smaller local applications, which are generally no longer subject to appeal to the Scottish Government. Instead, we have local review bodies. Even on larger planning applications that the Government deals with, such as those for wind farms that would generate in excess of 50MW, local authority decisions or recommendations are often upheld—the Government upholds them in about two thirds of cases.
Mike MacKenzie: No. I have taken enough interventions from the Conservatives.
The current consultation on planning proposals suggests taking the existing approach further by freeing local authorities to develop local development plans without fear that reporters will subsequently alter them. What the Tories in Scotland talk about in planning terms is not really localism, but nimbyism.
I will talk about other localism policies of the SNP Government. The community and renewable energy scheme has already delivered £16 million for community energy projects. We have an ambitious target to have 500MW of community energy generation by 2020. Jamie McGrigor will know of such projects on several islands. He will know about Gigha, but he might not know about the island of Yell—we cannot get much more local than that. I see the Presiding Officer indicating that I should wind up, which I am just about to do.
I welcome the Conservatives’ conversion to localism.
Mike MacKenzie: I only hope that, now that they have succeeded in driving our economy back into recession down in Westminster, members will use their power in Westminster to ensure that the Westminster Government invests in our local shovel-ready projects in order to kick-start our local and national economies.
Dr Richard Simpson (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): I declare that my wife is a candidate in the forthcoming elections.
Localism is interesting to debate, so I welcome the opportunity to participate. Localism can mean all sorts of different things to different people. I, too, will study John Mason’s thoughtful and interesting speech later, because he specified some of the difficulties that we face.
The Labour Party devolved power to Scotland through the formation of this Parliament. That was a form of localism. It was understood at the time that further devolution to councils should take place and that it should not stop there, but should go to local communities.
However, that approach sets a problem, which is how to deliver national strategy and national policy with some evenness—at least within fixed parameters—and without the unevenness that has resulted from the concordat. That is a difficult situation, to which no one has yet produced a true solution.
I will take business start-ups as an example. Scottish Enterprise’s powers to deal with new business start-ups were devolved to councils. That seemed to be a reasonable solution, but let us look at the consequences. In my area—Stirling—the number of start-ups has gone down from 480 to 350 under the local SNP administration. That just reflects the national pattern, but what does not reflect the national pattern is the three-year survival rate of new businesses in Stirling, where the rate has gone from being above the Scottish average to below it. If that is not enough, in the most recent year for which we have figures, the weekly wage in Stirling dropped by £29, in comparison with a rise of £4 across Scotland. The local SNP council is undoubtedly underperforming. What will be done about that? The only opportunity that we have to address that is to kick out the SNP council on 3 May and put back in a Labour council, but will it have the necessary powers to deal with the situation?
I can give a number of other examples. The Parliament agreed that healthy living centres were a good thing and they were set up under Labour. However, in the previous Parliament, Jim Mather decided precipitately to transfer the money to local authorities. It was only subsequently, under pressure, that the cabinet secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, produced bail-out funding to ensure that the healthy living centres did not collapse immediately because they were not a priority for local authorities.
If the Government is going to transfer things to local institutions, which is appropriate in some cases, it must ensure that there is proper transitional funding. Jim Mather also transferred the funding that Labour had allocated to produce the retired and senior volunteer programme—a scheme that is run by Community Service Volunteers, which was given £350,000 of central Government money to hire development officers to encourage local volunteers. In my area it was hugely successful, with 600 volunteers in the central region and a vast variety of opportunities for volunteering. The red T-shirted groups in our local hospitals began to provide something similar to candy stripers, in helping patients and supporting staff. Those groups were being implemented in an excellent way. There were also knitting and sewing circles to assist people with learning disabilities to have greater self-esteem, in addition to there being walking groups and a wide variety of other groups. What happened? The Government precipitately, without any planning, pushed the money out to the local authorities and within three months half the Scottish development officers were made redundant. A scheme that was working and that had created more than 3,000 volunteers throughout Scotland was seriously damaged by that precipitate move.
Derek Mackay: The member is making the argument that the SNP did not transfer to local government the resources that were ring fenced centrally. What does he make of the figures that show that, under the new financial settlement when the SNP came into office in 2007, not only did the overall share of the resource for local government increase, but what was de-ring-fenced was also transferred to local government in the main block? That blows apart his argument.
Dr Simpson: That does not “blow apart” my argument at all. The minister has clearly not been listening. My argument is not that the money was not transferred, but that the transfer should not have been precipitate. If a national scheme is set up—something that the SNP Government wants to implement—it should be done in a careful manner and there should then be some modification. If a new policy is introduced, there should be some way of monitoring it in local authorities.
Another example is the kinship care allowance. Under pressure from Wendy Alexander, the Government announced £10 million for local authorities for kinship care, but what have we seen? We have seen such variation in the application of the kinship care allowance across councils that there is genuine anger among the kinship care groups throughout Scotland to the extent that they are now petitioning Parliament. I am not suggesting a solution, but I think that there needs to be some way in which national policies are operated locally within parameters that ensure a level of social justice.
There are some things for which there is a strategic need, such as the power line from Beauly to Denny; we are all agreed that there is a need for that connection. However, although the local MSPs—SNP, Labour and Tory—all agreed that the line should be undergrounded, the decision was made nationally in a way that ensured that undergrounding would not occur; it was made in a political way that allowed the local MSPs to suggest that undergrounding might possibly take place, but it did not. That was political gerrymandering of the worst sort.
Pharmacy applications are another good example that Jackson Carlaw raised. I will come back to the question—
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Thank you very much. I call Linda Fabiani. We will then move to the closing speeches. I remind all members who are not currently in the chamber but who have taken part in the debate that they should be here for the closing speeches.
Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP): I apologise for being late this morning—particularly to Jackson Carlaw who, I understand, made the speech of his career, and I missed it.
Over the years, we have theorised about the issues that we are addressing today. I know about localism at first hand because my previous career in housing was spent in communities who wanted and demanded more say in the decisions on issues that affected their lives every day—issues that defined their past and determined the future for them and their families.
That taught me an awful lot. Principally, it taught me that when decision making is grasped by the people whose lives will be directly affected by the decisions, sustainable futures can result. Community-based housing associations and co-operatives proved that point, because their management committees got to grips with slum tenements and post-war housing estates, improved the stock and managed it well. To illustrate that, we should consider the stock in comparable peripheral estate streets in Glasgow in the context of sustainability, capital expenditure and social fabric. We can also consider the wider action that housing organisations took.
My experience taught me that all too often people got fed up with initiatives that received ring-fenced funding for a wee while before it suddenly ended. I also learned about the perceived distance of local authorities and elected councils. That is not to say that individual elected members were not committed to their wards and were not working hard in their own ways. However, the municipal machine grinds on, and decisions are taken far from where their effects will be felt. The problem is exacerbated by centralisation of power and decision making at national level.
The Scottish National Party has long had a policy of there being a power of general competence for local government. For eight years, when we were in opposition to a majority Government in Parliament—a coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems—we witnessed national-level micromanagement of issues that would clearly have been better dealt with by the people at the coalface.
Labour’s councils and councillors recognised the ineffectiveness of that approach. As we know, they were among those who very much welcomed the transformation of relations with local government to successful partnership status—the historic concordat, in fact. There is joint development of policy—most recently in relation to the abolition of council tax benefit.
The approach can go further, through recognition that national planning issues necessarily run alongside local issues and initiatives that do not need run at strategic level, although they form part of an overall agreed strategy. Our policy is for true subsidiarity, whereby power and decision making are devolved as far as possible to the people who will be most affected by the decisions. Decision making is devolved from the UK to Scotland—a nation making its own decisions—from Scotland’s Government to local authorities and from local authorities to communities.
John Mason was right to say that different parts of a local authority area will have communities that have different needs and aspirations, which should be recognised and encouraged. He was talking about Glasgow; I can talk about South Lanarkshire, which is a vast local authority area. My patch—East Kilbride—has different issues, needs and aspirations from Douglas in south Clydesdale, and therefore needs different policies. Larkhall’s issues, needs and aspirations are very different from those of Thorntonhall, which is on the other side of East Kilbride. We should acknowledge that people can decide what is best for their local areas. I would like local councils and elected members to take much more cognisance of that.
I understand that there must be strategic policy across a local authority area, but for the life of me I do not understand why policies must then be rationalised across areas. Our Government in Scotland recognises that, as was demonstrated to some extent in the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, in the context of how we can truly empower people—to use the jargon—to make decisions for a sustainable future.
I am excited about the proposed community empowerment and renewal bill, which is mentioned in the amendment in the minister’s name, because there are great community initiatives. For example, in East Kilbride a group that is seriously concerned about the prospect of our village theatre closing is working towards perhaps taking over the theatre. We were unfortunate that we lost out in the potential community buy-out of the Hunter House museum in the town, which celebrates the Hunter brothers. I hope that that historical resource will not be lost in the plans that are going forward.
There is good potential to let people make their own decisions. We can all work together on that, and we should have the grace to acknowledge that the Government has opened up an awful lot in that regard. We should move forward to true localism. I support the amendment in Derek Mackay’s name.
Sarah Boyack: It is difficult to sum up the debate. I hope that members will accept my apologies for not commenting on the interesting speeches that some of them made.
I shall focus on a few issues. I disagree with the comment of an SNP back bencher that there was no policy in Jackson Carlaw’s opening speech. There was quite an important policy—albeit that it was one with which I fervently disagree. However, I will reflect on it for a minute, because it goes to the heart of some of the challenges that we face.
Jackson Carlaw suggested, in relation to planning, that there should be separate codes of conduct for local councillors throughout the country. I argue strongly against that; it is a daft policy. I am absolutely in favour of there being different local planning policies. It is legitimate and appropriate for local councillors to set their own policy agendas, notwithstanding the fact that we also have national policies. However, in relation to the operation of the planning process, we need to learn from the Nolan principles that were implemented throughout the UK to ensure probity in every party, and among those who are not in a party, and to ensure that people in public life do the right thing.
I would not deny for a second that planning is complex. It is quasi-judicial, but we should have national standards that every councillor, regardless of who they are, which party—if any—they represent or which part of the country they are from, knows that they need to abide by.
If there are difficulties in the operation of the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006, that is a legitimate issue to raise. I would have sympathy if people did not understand how the act works or if new councillors were unsure about the system. If there is a need to refresh the guidance, let us argue for that, but let us not take away the idea of national standards.
Margaret Mitchell: Sarah Boyack mentioned quasi-judicial standards. However, the code of conduct should not prevent a local member from representing the views of his or her local community when it comes to a local planning application in his or her ward.
Sarah Boyack: With respect, I say that that is slightly different. There has always been a case for members going to a planning committee and banging the drum for the views of their constituents. That is absolutely appropriate. However, we need to ensure that if someone sits on the planning committee, they can demonstrate that they have fully considered the issues in respect of a planning application. Margaret Mitchell may have concerns about the process and the guidance—I think that that is a different issue. However, we need to hang on to the principle of probity and standards in public life.
I will look at Paul Wheelhouse slightly differently after this morning’s revelation about his past as a young Conservative. I was astonished at his comment that the changes to the bus service operators grant were a plus point for the SNP because local councils are now standing up for their constituents. It has been a disaster: it has created a crisis and then people’s response to it has been welcomed. That was a daft point to make.
In the past couple of weeks I have been out talking to people in East Lothian and Midlothian, and there are members of the public who are genuinely worried about whether they can stay in their employment. There are health service workers, nurses and care support workers, who, if the buses go, as planned, will simply not be able to get to work. Using the local bus is not a choice for them—it is a necessity. That has to be sorted out.
Sarah Boyack: I will not, because I am responding to Paul Wheelhouse’s point. The SNP’s changes to national policy are having an impact on local councils. We all know that fuel costs are rising. That is why it is particularly scandalous that the SNP has undermined and destabilised the system of bus funding in this country.
Sarah Boyack: No, I will not.
That has happened on the SNP’s watch. The SNP has destabilised a system and now constituents throughout the country are worrying about whether they will have jobs in June because the bus services are going.
Sarah Boyack: When I hear the SNP talk about scaremongering, it makes me remember the issue of—[Interruption.] With respect, I said that I would—
Sarah Boyack: No. Let me move on. I have only six minutes, so there is not a chance. It is my right not to take an intervention. If members had been in the chamber, they would know that I took several interventions earlier.
Sarah Boyack: I repeat that I took several interventions in my opening speech. I apologise for not being able to take interventions from everyone in my closing speech. That should be respected. We should have some courtesy in the chamber. [Interruption.]
Sarah Boyack: The SNP members do not like it when they are in power and we criticise how they exercise that power to the detriment of our constituents.
Richard Simpson made a fantastic speech about what is really happening to kinship carers. That goes to the heart of the issue, because there are national objectives, then there is the reality locally of what happens when funding systems are changed. Several members rightly commented on that in their speeches. It is one thing to have a national priority in a manifesto, but it is another to expect local government to implement it when the Government is not providing the funding to enable it to do that. Whether it is about kinship carers, the number of teachers in schools, the fact that schools cannot be replaced or flood prevention implementation being delayed in my city, the SNP is guilty of having made the wrong decisions. I hope that people will reflect on that next week.
Derek Mackay: Many people watching the debate might be slightly disappointed that we have not fully discussed the virtues of local democracy. Perhaps that is because we are only a matter of days away from the local government elections. If we were to rerun the debate at another time, it might have a slightly different style.
I repeat that I believe that the SNP Government has a fantastic record on supporting local government and meeting the aspirations of local people. It is unfortunate that yesterday, when we were discussing community empowerment and community planning, we were literally trumped by other events that took the focus off the local government issues.
In response to the point that she raised about centralisation, I refer Sarah Boyack to the increased share of funding for local government, which is greater than the share that it received under previous Administrations. Further, we are simplifying and streamlining Scottish society and public services by having fewer quangos and public bodies but greater democracy. That is best exemplified in my portfolio at the moment with the planning consultation, which has received support from across the board.
Mike MacKenzie accurately raised the planning issues and the importance of local authorities having a sound local plan, because it can help to influence planning decisions. However, there will always be the right to appeal and ensure that there is adequate consideration of strategic issues.
On local issues, why do I think that the historic concordant was so historic? I was in another place between 2007 and 2011. I was in local government and I can tell members that throughout the country local government and local people welcomed the concordant and the impact that it had on communities by removing ring fencing and micromanagement and ensuring that we delivered on outcomes—the things that really matter. People had that view right across the political spectrum.
I was the leader of Renfrewshire Council for some time. The contribution of Neil Bibby in his speech was helpful, but he may want to correct the record because, contrary to what he said, the Labour opposition on the council did not put up alternative budgets year after year and it criticised public events that were supported by the people of Paisley. It criticised the spend on celebrities to bring 30,000 people to the town. What Neil Bibby did not tell members, of course, was that Labour cooncillors and their families were queueing up to get into those events. I have news for Mr Bibby: lifelong Labour Party member Moira Milton, who is still in the Labour Party but perhaps not for much longer, has said that she would encourage people to vote for the Scottish National Party because Labour has done so little in her area.
I described to Tavish Scott how the Government will ensure that there will be local flexibility within the single police and fire service.
In preparation for the debate, I had to read through the Conservative manifesto, and it really is a desperate attempt to try to find some policies to attach to. The only idea that was in any way interesting was the idea of having elected provosts. However, I do not hear much call for elected provosts in Edinburgh, Glasgow and other cities. Incidentally, whoever becomes provost has already been elected by the local community.
We will, indeed, be judged by what we do. Jean Urquhart’s point about housing finance in Highland is absolutely correct. The members who were sniggering clearly do not understand the issue. The issue was that successive UK Governments, supported by Labour Executives in Scotland, said to local authorities, “Either transfer your housing stock or you will get no support from us.” [Interruption.] It is true. The Scottish Government’s innovation and imagination on that and many other issues, including prudential borrowing, ensure that local authorities can borrow and come up with their own financial packages, within reasonable parameters, to invest in local priorities. That is a step change in how the Scottish Government does business with local government. We offer more alternatives, more innovation and greater flexibility in how finances are used to deploy the best resources for local outcomes.
Alex Johnstone mentioned the potential devolution of some powers. Let us take welfare support and the abolition of council tax benefit as an example. Only the resources were transferred—not, of course, the power to help the most vulnerable—minus a 10 per cent cut, £40 million, which would have affected the most vulnerable in our society.
I return to the Government’s record on planning. We have taken decisions on fewer applications and appeals than previous Administrations and, in those that we have considered—say, in the renewables sector—we have agreed with local government more often than we have disagreed with it, which shoots the fox of our planning decisions.
Let us consider the worst of all worlds: what is happening in England. We will take no lessons from what is happening there: deeper cuts in council services, compulsory redundancies and even council tax rises. That is the toxic mix in England, and we need to take no lessons on localism from David Cameron or anyone else. The Tories, of course, are late converts to it. They now believe in devolution having been dragged kicking and screaming to it.
In Scotland, we have an opportunity to continue a positive dialogue with local government on what really matters. Perhaps that, our strong record in government and our fantastic team on the ground are the reasons why the SNP is fielding more candidates in the election, the Labour Party has already said that it will come second, the Tories have candidates but do not want to win where they are standing and the Liberals, as usual, are not present for the debate and have already given up on the local government elections as well.
Mary Scanlon: If the SNP believes in localism, why is it not allowing the elected commissioners of the Crofters Commission to select their own chairman and, instead, is choosing to appoint one centrally by ministerial diktat?
Derek Mackay: That is not in my ministerial portfolio, but perhaps I should make it part of local government as well. I am more than happy to come back to Mary Scanlon with further details.
How much further time do I have, Presiding Officer?
Derek Mackay: Liz Smith made a considered speech on education. There is a debate about how much more we can empower and devolve. The debate about where decisions are best taken can continue but, clearly, there is a difference between the curriculum for excellence and the management of schools. The Government has decentralised to education authorities, has supported local empowerment and supports the devolution of management within local authorities to headteachers and others to ensure that the education system is absolutely fit for purpose.
I look forward to getting clarity from Margaret Mitchell on her proposals for the planning system—on how she would abolish reporters and change the system of appeals. Doing that along the lines that she may be proposing seems quite dangerous to me.
The Conservatives asked about ring-fenced funding. The SNP Scottish Government is abolishing 99 per cent of the ring-fenced funds in local government as we reach the end of the comprehensive spending review, so what more would the Conservatives do? I know that they would not abolish 100 per cent of ring-fenced funds, because Margaret Mitchell asked about the discontinuation of the town centre regeneration fund, which is a ring-fenced budget that the Scottish Government set centrally.
There are inconsistencies in what the Conservatives say. I am convinced that the Government’s record on local government and localism—as the Conservatives describe it—is fantastic.
Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con): This motion’s terms are critical, with justification. Today, the Scottish Conservatives have used the full amount of time available to us as an Opposition party to highlight the SNP Government’s record on localism, and to hold it to account on that vital issue.
Let us be clear about the necessity to do that. The advent of majority government, which nobody thought possible under the Scottish system of devolution, means that the Parliament now has no checks or balances. It follows that the SNP Government can simply make policy decisions and use its parliamentary majority to vote those decisions through and present them as the will of the Parliament.
Jamie Hepburn: I must correct the member. This is not the advent of majority government. There was majority government from 1999 to 2007. The member would do well to reflect on that fact.
Margaret Mitchell: The Scottish Conservatives are fierce advocates of local government and local decision making. We believe that it not only adds value to quality of life and allows local solutions to local problems in communities but is, quite simply, fundamentally right in principle.
To date the Government, and this morning the minister and his back benchers, have made the right noises about supporting local decision making. However, a worrying picture has emerged from the debate that indicates all too vividly that, as the motion states, the Government’s rhetoric does not marry with the reality of the decisions that it makes.
We have heard examples of the Government’s patently obvious centralising programme, especially in the planning context, where centrally decided, national priorities are being forced on local communities, riding roughshod over local priorities. The statistics speak for themselves. In 2010-11, the Scottish Government upheld 48 per cent of all appeals that were referred to it. That figure is up from 33 per cent in the previous year and is more evidence of the worrying trend emerging that the Government is wilfully disregarding decisions that have been made in consultation and agreement with the local community.
Furthermore, the SNP has presided over, and is responsible for shaping, a planning system that systematically excludes local decision making and local democracy. That can be seen in the case of major planning applications. Time and again, local communities and councils find that their fully discussed and agreed local planning decisions are being overturned by the Government. There are numerous examples, of which a growing proportion relate to renewable energy and waste management.
In North Lanarkshire, Shore Energy Ltd applied to build an energy-from-waste plant at Carnbroe. Local residents made a staggering 6,000 objections and councillors unanimously turned down the application. The overwhelming decision to reject the application was overturned on appeal, when Shore Energy took its case to the Government. Worse still, the local authority—and, by extension, taxpayers—must now fork out even more money to fund a judicial review.
In Moray, the council, the Cairngorm National Park Authority and huge swathes of the public opposed the Dorenell wind farm, only to have that local rejection overturned by the Scottish Government. In Dumfries and Galloway, a decision by planning officials and the local area committee to refuse a wind turbine development was overturned on appeal to the Government. Again, little or no account of local decision making was taken.
More generally, it is deeply worrying that a quarter of wind farm applications—which are increasing at an alarming rate, usually in the teeth of opposition from local communities—that came before the planning appeals body after being rejected by councils have had that local decision overturned at Holyrood.
Margaret Mitchell: The back benchers have had a good shot at the debate, so I will make some progress.
Clearly, the SNP’s preoccupation with achieving its national renewables targets is resulting in that policy taking precedence over what local people consider to be in their community’s best interests.
Margaret Mitchell: I will perhaps take an intervention later.
As a result of a freedom of information request from my colleague Alex Johnstone, we have established that the SNP is twice as likely to overturn local authority decisions on the siting of mobile phone masts as it is to back those decisions. Again, the tally of local decisions that are being overturned centrally is mounting. In those circumstances, local people are entirely justified in questioning the point of councillors, community representatives and others spending great lengths of time—sometimes years—developing a local plan in consultation with developers, only to have reporters, appointed by the Government, approve applications that are contrary to the agreed local plan.
The picture is no better with regard to housing planning decisions. In the northern corridor of North Lanarkshire, which includes Stepps and the surrounding villages, an area of greenbelt land has been constantly kept out of the local plan for the good reason that it keeps distinct boundaries between different communities. Again, the reporter who was appointed by the Scottish Government to assess the developer’s objections has taken the decision to recommend that the land be developed. Now, the local community is facing the prospect of wall-to-wall urbanisation, resulting in an erosion of people’s sense of belonging and local identity, which the local plan sought to protect.
Worse still, outwith the planning context, the SNP Government has form when it comes to a centralising agenda. Tavish Scott made pertinent comments about the proposal for a single police force. A distinct example of the centralising agenda was the Government’s proposal that the powers of the police complaints commissioner for Scotland be brought under the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. In proposing that, no account was taken of the unique and legitimate state-sanctioned powers that police have to limit the rights of others and, most notably, to deprive people of their liberty, and to do so with the use of force, if that is deemed necessary. The fact that that centralisation of power was avoided was due entirely to the fact that, in a members’ business debate in the Parliament, the overwhelming case for a different arrangement to be put in place for handling police complaints was recognised and, as a result, the issue is now being considered in the context of police reform.
The centralising agenda does not stop there. Another deeply concerning proposal in relation to prison visiting committees is still under consideration. The Government proposes to replace those committees with a dedicated independent prisoner advocacy service, despite the fact that prison visiting committees represent value for money, are staffed by local volunteers and provide an effective link with local communities. Once more, localism is being rejected in favour of more powers being brought closer to the centre, which in turn, and worryingly, greatly diminishes the ability to scrutinise the Scottish Prison Service and hold ministers to account.
Margaret Mitchell: No, I am going to complete my speech. The minister asked for examples; now he is getting them.
It is only because awareness about the whole issue has been raised through Scottish Parliament questions and debates that that proposal is under review rather than being a done deal. We can only hope that common sense will prevail.
It is patently obvious from the debate that we have a Government that argues constantly for devolution of power from Westminster and a First Minister who, rather than getting on with the job that he was elected to do, spends an inordinate amount of time courting the rich and famous, desperately seeking support for independence. At the same time, despite its rhetoric, the SNP’s track record shows that it is systematically eroding the devolution of power to local councils, local people and communities in Scotland. Instead of being used to indulge in the never-ending constitutional debate, the chamber time this morning has been used to highlight situations in which local communities are being sold short by this majority SNP Government and its agenda of centralisation.
Quite simply, local people deserve more. Consequently, I have much pleasure in supporting the motion.
Scottish Executive Question Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Scottish Executive Question Time