Will devolution mean centralised schools?;Opinion

20th March 1998 at 00:00
An independent commission has started trying to make sense of relations between councils and the Scottish parliament. It was set up by the Secretary of State but local government leaders will be keenest to influence its thoughts. Other pre-parliamentary decisions such as the number of weeks in the year that MSPs will meet and whether they will refer to each other as "honourable" are easy compared with stepping on power bases, actual and potential.

There is no shortage of suspicion already about central government's empire building, and that is before the MSPs are elected and start casting around for something to occupy their time.

Council leaders fear that the parliament will be tempted to remove or reduce powers over education, police, transport and strategic planning. If they are right, the danger does not come from legislative changes to the structure of local government. So soon after the last round of reorganisation, no Scottish administration is going to seek to alter the boundaries or formal powers of councils. But it does not take statutory interference to chip away at autonomy, and that is the councils' real fear.

They know that the parliament is bound to change relations and since the overwhelming majority of councillors belong to parties supporting devolution or even greater national autonomy, they can only welcome the realisation of an aspiration. But they do not want MSPs intruding into their backyard, much less have tanks parked on their lawn.

Already the signs of intrusion are detected. There was resentment by education conveners and directors when the head of the Inspectorate appeared to bypass them in writing to headteachers about the new school targets. The curriculum is now centrally directed. Local authority as opposed to national circulars are nugatory, unlike in the old regions.

The 32 councils have professed themselves enablers rather than direct providers of services. In education, that ties in with devolving management to headteachers and school boards. Yet it is as enablers and strategists that councils have most to lose from the creation of the parliament. If unelected officials such as HMI can already muscle in on local government, what hope is there of deterring members of the parliament who will see themselves as setting the education and other agendas? Councils would then have the job merely of implementing national policies. The "enabling" rationale would disappear.

If power follows money, there is little comfort there either. Councils will continue to depend on central government for the bulk of their funding. Labour shows signs of being more attracted to specific, ring-fenced grants than its predecessors. That way it can ensure that its priorities are heeded. The trend is likely to continue under the parliament, and again councils would become agents and not instigators.

When some councils have shown themselves incapable of getting even their own employees to stump up for the modest share of revenue which is still locally controlled, central government will be under no pressure to do more than hand out dollops of money in return for compliance. In time, council leaders may get the review of local finance they have long sought. If it results in greater clarity, well and good, but power will remain where it is.

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