MSPs have backed a bid to enshrine protections for local councils into Scots law – even though they questioned what impact the legislation will have.
Former Green MSP Andy Wightman has brought forward a Member’s Bill at Holyrood which seeks to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law.
The charter, created in 1985, sets out a number of rights for local government, making clear they have a right to be consulted on issues which concern them, and should be able to set local taxes to raise part of their income.
The charter also states councils should have “sufficiently diversified and buoyant” sources of finance to be able to afford the services they provide and to keep pace with increased demand, and it makes clear that cash for local authorities, as far as possible, should not be earmarked for specific purposes.
But with the Scottish Government insisting it is “already bound to adhere to the principles set out in the Bill”, MSPs on Holyrood’s Local Government Committee questioned what impact Mr Wightman’s proposals will have.
Their report said: “The prospect of the Bill having much financial impact, either on councils or on central government, or of it leading to a step-change in the way councils work and provide services, has been doubted.”
However MSPs heard some in the sector feel the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill could be “potentially transformative in terms of the constitutional and working relationship between the state and local government”.
The committee said it does not agree with Mr Wightman that local government in Scotland has been “neglected” under devolution.
But it added: “We agree that there is room for a levelling-up in the relationship between Holyrood and the local government sector.
“Incorporating the charter into Scots law is not a magic wand and some expectations expressed in evidence about what the Bill may achieve could be seen as unrealistic.
“But we agree that passing the Bill creates the opportunity and space for local and central government to recommit together to an effective, respectful and inclusive working partnership.”
Committee convener James Dornan said: “Across the political divide, there is a strong consensus that we need to have a successful local government sector in Scotland that can meet the needs of the communities it serves.
“Whilst this legislation is certainly not a panacea, the committee all agreed that it could have a positive impact in helping to reinforce the status of local authorities.”
Alison Evison, president of local government organisation Cosla, welcomed the report and described the committee’s backing of the Bill as “great news”.
She added the legislation “would mean that Scotland would no longer be one of the last remaining jurisdictions in Europe not to have given the charter the direct legal standing it deserves”.
She said: “I was particularly pleased that the committee thought that the Bill would act as a spur for local and central government to co-operate effectively – this has long been the position of Cosla and that can only be good news for our communities.”