Centralism versus localism? Democracy versus efficiency? The perennial challenges of Scottish local government organisation

Research output: Other contributionpeer-review


Scotland’s present local government arrangements have come under sustained criticism for their remoteness from local communities and disconnectedness between local citizens and municipal institutions.

The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee has examined these problems and local government reforms look likely in the aftermath of the independence referendum, whatever its outcome.

Local citizens should be consulted about the governance of their communities, in the hope of reconnecting people and the institutions that govern them. Digital technology increases the scope for this, both in the design of local government structures and in their decision-making processes.

History offers important and attractive models that could solve Scotland’s local government malaise. Each of the four major re-organisations of Scottish local government since 1833 have their own strengths and weaknesses.

From 1833 until about 1890, Scotland operated its distinctive legislative framework, inspired by the liberal notion of self-government, which enabled local communities to set up municipalities, sometimes on a small scale relative to population and geography. Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, local self-government became less influential in the face of new ideas and recognition of the inefficiencies of over-localised municipal organisation. These factors led to larger, more centralised authorities.

The 1969 Wheatley Report proposals for a two-tier system of regional and district councils, elected by local citizens, abolished administrative units with nineteenth-century origins in 1975.

1996 saw further reform, creating 32 unitary authorities, which were intended to gather all local services under one roof. These structures have been too remote from local communities.

The key question for Scottish local government after the referendum is how to reconcile the best aspects of local self-government, community identity and civic voluntarism with mass democracy? Above all, history suggests one size, shape and structure of local government would not fit all Scottish communities.
Original languageEnglish
TypePolicy Paper
Media of outputOnline / eBook
PublisherHistory and Policy
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2014

Publication series

NameHistory and Policy - Policy Papers


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