Is cutting Scottish councils the way ahead?

At least the Kingdom survives.

Fife is spared from enforced merger in the proposed new map of Scottish local government drawn up by the think tank Reform Scotland.

My mind is instantly cast back to an earlier redraft of council cartography, one which had government sanction.

This scheme in the 1970s was, as I recall, inspired by something dubbed the "estuarial principle".

The good and sensible people of Fife, finding themselves between the Estuaries of the Tay and the Forth, faced the prospect of a local government boundary being driven right down the middle of their ancient Kingdom.

Needless to say, they were less than pleased. And, when Fifers are displeased, they are inclined to let the rest of us know about it.

Which is a very long way round to saying that it is a courageous politician indeed who tampers with cooncil boundaries.

At Holyrood, it would appear, such courage is in relatively short supply. Or, more charitably, our political parties long since concluded that local government reorganisation does not always produce the savings or benefits anticipated.

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The key argument is that councils must be reinvigorated with enhanced powers and new capacity to raise revenue, taking the hit from the voters as a consequence”

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To the substance, though.

Reform Scotland says councils are neglected and ignored by the citizenry, as witness the turnout in the recent elections.

They propose fewer councils - but with greater clout, for example by transferring to them control of health services.

Fewer? Instead of 32 local authorities, they want 19.

North and South Lanarkshire would merge, as would the three Ayrshire authorities. Grampian would re-emerge, comprising Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray.

Edinburgh, Glasgow, Highland - and Fife - would survive, standing alone. As would the three island groupings.

And there are some curiosities.

Dundee and Angus would be merged to form a new Tayside Council - yet Perth and Kinross would be left free-standing, its fiefdom still including the Dundonian suburb of Invergowrie.

To be fair, Ben Thomson, of Reform Scotland, says their effort is a draft, a stimulus to debate.

The key argument is that councils must be reinvigorated with enhanced powers and new capacity to raise revenue, taking the hit from the voters as a consequence.

In terms of that debate, there is notable caution at Holyrood.

The older heads still remember a previous outbreak of truly radical change in local government when some Tory bright spark mused: "Hey, how about a community charge which everyone pays."

Cautious response

The SNP came to power promising a Local Income Tax. For sundry reasons, nothing has happened on that front. Instead, there is a persisting council tax freeze.

To be fair, there are chilly feet on display everywhere - or, again more charitably, understandable caution.

The Scottish government says it will take its lead partly from the Christie Commission which urged revised service provision in order to pre-empt problems.

Ministers will urge "innovative ways of collaborating" between councils and will drive that with an upcoming Bill on community empowerment.

Labour's devolution commission will include a look at enhanced powers for local government.

The Liberal Democrats intend to scrutinise forward demand for local services. The Tories are none too keen on boundary changes but fancy the idea of directly elected provosts.

So, caution, caution. But perhaps some helpful ideas to chuck into the mix as Scotland considers her future governance.

Brian Taylor Article written by Brian Taylor Brian Taylor Political editor, Scotland

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