Andy Wightman’s Member’s Bill will aim to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law. The Charter, which was created in 1985 by the Council of Europe, sets out 10 principles to protect the basic powers of local councils, which SNP ministers will have to follow.
The Charter commits Governments to applying basic rules guaranteeing the political, administrative and financial independence of local authorities.
It provides the principle and authority of local self-government shall be recognised in laws and that councils are to be elected by members of the public.
SNP ministers will be expected to give councils additional powers under the EU Charter because the Scottish Government wields too much control over local authorities.
By incorporating the Charter, it would also allow Scots and organisations to challenge the Scottish Government in court if its laws or decisions are not compatible with the Charter in relation to managing council powers.
The new Bill, which was brought forward by the independent Lothian MSP, is backed by the SNP and was passed by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament last night.
Speaking in Holyrood yesterday, Mr Wightman said: “Unlike most European countries, our local democratic institutions have suffered from ad hoc reform, systematic disempowerment and neglect.
“We have one of the weakest systems of local government in Europe.
“Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe.
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“It is no coincidence that our European neighbours are often more successful at improving outcomes, and have much greater turn out at elections.”
The background to the bill reads: “Over the past century the status, powers and freedoms of local government have been slowly eroded and marginalised.
“Over the 20 years since the Scottish Parliament was established, local democracy has been neglected and Scottish Ministers have assumed greater influence over local government affairs by exerting control over local tax rates and mandating specific policy outcomes in relation to the statutory powers of local government.
“That this has often been facilitated by local government itself does not in any way affect the ongoing erosion of local autonomy.”
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Annie Wells MSP, Scottish Conservative spokesman for Local Government said: “With much of the day-to-day political focus on stories about the capitals of Europe, including London and Edinburgh, we often fail to recognise the important role that councils play in delivering for the Scottish people.”
Pauline McNeill MSP, Scottish Labour Local Government representative, added: “If enacted, the bill should —and, I hope, will — protect councils from centralisation and unfair cuts, and from central control over their finances.
“The bill is long overdue, as can be seen from the damage that has been done to local government finance over the past decade or so.
“The duty for Scottish ministers to act compatibly with the charter, and the requirement for courts to read legislation in a way that is compliant, will be another valuable tool.”
It comes after MSPs passed the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill which will provide for continuity of EU provisions that would otherwise be lost with Brexit.
Constitution Secretary Mike Russell said the new Bill will mean, on devolved matters, Scottish law can keep in line with those in Europe “when appropriate and practicable to do so”.