Reorganization of Local Government in Scotland: A Tradition of Democracy

By Smart, Peter | Public Management, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Reorganization of Local Government in Scotland: A Tradition of Democracy


Smart, Peter, Public Management


Scotland has a tradition of democratically elected local government. As in the rest of the United Kingdom, the number and functions of local jurisdictions are determined by the central government at Westminster. Any changes can only be made by an act of Parliament. Such an act was passed in the fall of 1994, imposing a fundamental change on the shape and functions of local governments in Scotland from April 1, 1996.

Local government was last reformed in May 1975. Then, a two-tier structure was introduced across the whole of mainland Scotland. (The islands to the north and west of Scotland had a separate single-tier structure, which continues.) Nine regional councils were responsible for providing such big-spending services as public school education, social welfare services, highways, water and wastewater services, police, and fire fighting. The 53 district councils provided a range of such local services as public authority housing, environmental services (garbage collection and street cleaning), and leisure and recreation (libraries and art galleries, parks, and museums). Every location in Scotland was served by two councils: a region and a district, each council raising its own taxes to pay for the range of functions for which it was responsible.

None of the old jurisdictions was small. The largest region, Strathclyde, served a population of 2.5 million and was the largest local government in western Europe. Even the smallest districts served a population of 10,000 or more. The largest jurisdictions employed more than 20,000 staff, and not many districts employed fewer than 500. Collectively, they spent over $12 billion a year.

The Main Changes

In the fall of 1992, the government issued a consultation paper proposing fundamental reforms to local government. The stated aims were to simplify the structure and to bring services closer to the people. The system would be simplified by abolishing the two-tier structure and replacing it with a single tier of "all-purpose" councils. Many of these would be smaller than their predecessors and would therefore make local government more local.

The former local governments did not generally see a need for the changes and sought to oppose the legislation as it passed through Parliament at Westminster. It is pertinent to note two issues here. First, the proposals were emanating from a Conservative government, while the majority of local governments in Scotland were under the control of opposition parties, particularly Labour. Second, each of the opposing parties had its own proposals for a single tier of local government in Scotland at some stage in the future, in connection with the introduction of a Scottish Parliament or Assembly. The merits of the proposed changes thus got caught up in other party politics.

The former local governments and their national association implemented a policy of noncooperation with central government in respect of the proposed changes, until the legislation reached the statute book.

On March 31, 1996, the legislation abolished the whole of the previous structure. From the following day, a new structure of 29 all-purpose authorities was introduced. …

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