Reform must be gradual

11th May 2007 at 01:00
Any political party in power at a local level will have to prioritise education, says a former council leader.

AMID THE brouhaha over last week's parliamentary results, it has gone largely unnoticed that there was an equally dramatic shift in the make-up of local government. It opens up the prospect of widely varying educational policies in different parts of the country.

Labour's hegemony in council chambers, which had been steadily eroding to the point where it had outright control in only 13 of the 32 councils before the election, has disappeared. The new system of proportional representation has resulted in the party running just two authorities - Glasgow and North Lanarkshire, but with greatly reduced majorities of only 11 and 10 respectively.

Labour seats tumbled across the country. They lost former strongholds such as South Lanarkshire and found themselves outnumbered in historically socialist heartlands such as Fife, East Ayrshire, Midlothian and West Lothian.

In Aberdeenshire, Labour returned not a single councillor. It had none in the previous council either, but even the introduction of the single transferable vote, designed to give a fairer spread of representation to the parties, was of no help.

The SNP is now the largest party in local government, with 363 councillors to Labour's 348; the Liberal Democrats have 166, the Conservatives 143 and assorted others 194.

However, Labour emerged as the largest party, but with no overall control, in 10 councils where it will be expected to make the initial attempts to form an administration (Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, Midlothian, North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire, Stirling, West Dunbartonshire and West Lothian). Labour also got the same number of seats as the SNP in a further three councils and tied with the Tories in another.

Charlie Gray, the former president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and latterly its education spokesperson, expressed concern that the new voting system may herald a return to the days of more "languid" local government.

In the early 20th century, he recalled, local authorities were populated by doctors, ministers and other members of the professional classes, who had little concern with wider issues. That changed, he said, when Labour started to gain power and oversee radical reforms, such as the building of council houses and the widespread improvement of roads.

Mr Gray, who stood down at the election as a councillor in North Lanarkshire where he was education convener, is relatively unconcerned, however, that Labour has lost much of the control over his old remit of education. He believes any party in power at a local level would prioritise education because of its national importance. "I have no worries at all about what the SNP will do," he said.

He is also confident that all parties will make educational reform gradual.

"Any abrupt changes in systems and processes would be quite harmful," he commented.

Councillors in Argyll and Bute became the first to form an administration earlier this week. The council, previously run solely by Independents, is now in the hands of an SNPIndependent coalition, headed by Independent councillor Dick Walsh.

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