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Government / Local politics

Scotland's cities are battling Holyrood for control over their own affairs

Last week, Glasgow played host to the latest meeting of the Core Cities: a group which represents the eight largest English cities outside London (which founded it), and Cardiff and Glasgow (which joined separately during the second half of 2014).

Those addressing the Summit included Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury in Westminster; the Scottish secretary for infrastructure and cities, Keith Brown, of the SNP; and Jim Murphy, Labour’s leader in Scotland. And with an eye, no doubt, on the general election, spending commitments were prominent.

Thus, Brown announced that £15m from the Scottish European Regional Development Fund Programme for 2014-20 would be used to develop new technologies for the delivery of city services.

Murphy, meanwhile, outlined his support for a Glasgow Crossrail service, which he predicted would create 130 jobs and generate £36m for the city’s economy. Not content to ride just one announcement, he also revealed he had asked the leaders of Glasgow and Edinburgh to work on plans for a “twin city powerhouse” – able to compete, in theory, with London and the Manchester city region.

The event also featured the launch of the Modern Charter for Local Freedom. Invoking the Magna Carta in the year of its 800th anniversary – a tactic likely to be widely used by democratic malcontents in 2015 – it called for more power over the raising and spending of taxes to be devolved to Britain’s cities.

The Core Cities had made similar calls last November, following the publication of the Smith Commission report on further devolution in Scotland. But Glasgow finds itself in a different situation from its English counterparts: unlike them, it doesn’t only have to contend only with Westminster in its quest for more power. In Scotland, the struggle is a three way battle between Westminster, Holyrood and local authorities.

The prospect of further devolution to the Scottish Parliament has added another dimension to the ongoing tug-of-war between Scotland’s government and its local authorities. Councils are already aggrieved by the centralisation of the police force and a programme of local court closures. Now, debate is raging about who is best placed to use proposed new powers, with Scottish Labour calling for local authorities to have responsibility for delivery of the Work Programme.

In the north, politicians representing Aberdeen have expressed anxieties about both local health spending, and the artificially high costs of housing in the city. Such costs are the result of the recent strength of the local oil industry – but now the oil price has fallen, concerns about an impending jobs crisis have been added to the pile, too. Local politicians are calling for a city deal, similar to that announced for Glasgow last summer, based on government grants and additional borrowing powers.

Elsewhere, local authorities are frustrated about the Scottish Government’s funding of the council tax freeze and for the maintenance of teacher numbers, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities announcing it had consulted lawyers regarding the latter issue. Ahead of a meeting to set its budget on Thursday, the leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, urged the Scottish government to revisit the funding arrangements in place for local government.

Holyrood’s own frustration were exposed back in January by the MSP Joan McAlpine, often said to have been close to Alex Salmond during his time as First Minister, who accused “anti-SNP parties” of calling for local devolution “to bring down our parliament”.

Friction between local and national government is nothing new; rows, particularly over funding, have been a long-standing feature of UK politics. The difference today, though, is that the stakes are higher.

The referendum on Scottish independence and subsequent initiation of a further round of devolution has kicked power sharing and the constitution to the centre of UK politics. (Note, again, the attempt by the Core Cities group to piggyback on the Smith Commission.)

One of the consequences has been a greater emphasis on the governance of England. William Hague’s proposals for legislative reform have been one manifestation of this; more insistency on the part of cities the other. By way of an example, Core Cities chairman and leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese, told last week’s conference: “What is good enough for the UK’s nations should be good enough for our cities.”

The SNP mantra since the referendum has been that Scottish politics has been changed forever. But too often the debate has been framed as an adversarial contest between Westminster and Holyrood, and there is little indication that this has led to a genuine and detailed rethink of how power is distributed within Scotland.

The result is that Scotland’s cities, unlike those in England, have been unable to present themselves as the convenient answer to a national question no one knows how to answer. Instead, they have to plead their case to the Scottish Government – in what looks like a climate of growing incomprehension and mistrust.
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