Local Government since Devolution – local governance or local administration?

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe will publish twenty ‘20 year’ blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019. Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs. This blog looks at local government in Scotland since devolution.

Structure and reform of local government pre-devolution

During the 1960s, there was a widespread recognition that the historical structure of local government needed reform. The Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley, published its report in 1969. The Commission’s proposals were introduced by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which created nine Regions, 53 Districts and three Island Areas and removed all previous burghs and landward districts. The new structure came into effect in 1975. This Act also set out many of the responsibilities and processes still in use in local government today.

The current structure of local government, consisting of 32 unitary authorities, came into being in 1996, following the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. This setup was brought in by the UK Government, who also brought forward the Local Government Finance Act 1992, which introduced Council Tax to Scotland following the controversial trialling of the Community Charge (aka the Poll Tax) in Scotland from 1989 (one year before its introduction in England and Wales).

Local authorities in numbers and colours

Geography and population

The following map shows the geography of the current 32 authority set-up, which has been in place since 1996.

SPICe_2019_20th anniversary blog_la boundaries_averages

The smallest local authority geographically is Dundee City, at just 60km2,  and the largest is Highland, covering 25,659km2 – over 427 times the area of Dundee!

Glasgow City has the highest population of all local authorities, at 621,000, followed not too far behind by City of Edinburgh at 513,200. The third largest authority is Fife, with a population of 371,400.

There are three local authorities which are made up wholly of islands, and have been in their current form since 1975 – Orkney, Shetland and Na h Eileanan Siar (Western Isles).

With a population of 51,500, around a 12th of that of Glasgow City, Clackmannanshire has the smallest population of all mainland local authorities.

Changes since 1999

Since 1999 Scotland’s population has increased by 7%, however this has played out in a different ways on a local authority level.

There has been some trend towards cities growing, and rural areas declining, but the greatest decline has been in urban Inverclyde (9%), and the greatest growth is in rural East Lothian (16%).

This animated chart from our 20 year blog on Scotland’s population shows these changes.

Animation - Change in population by LA 99 to 18

Of course, this only shows part of the picture. The socioeconomic status and age profile of populations will have also changed, and will continue to change. This is one of the biggest concerns for local government moving forward.

Audit Scotland, in its 2019 Challenges and Performance report on local government, set out that:

“Demographic pressures, including an ageing population continue to increase the demands on council services. Over the period 2016 to 2041, ten councils expect an increase in both the over-65 population and the under-15 population. […]

All councils are projected to have an increase in the number of people over 65 by 2041. West Lothian council has a projected 45 per cent increase in the over-65 age group, the highest in Scotland. An ageing population represents a significant challenge for councils especially in delivering social care services.”


As with both the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons, the political make-up of Scotland’s local authorities has changed significantly since 1999.

At the start of 1999, Labour held 20 of Scotland’s 32 Councils. The only other party with councils under its control was the SNP (3), with the remaining councils being under independent (5) or no overall control (4). The May 1999 elections heralded change, with Labour losing four councils, and the SNP two, increasing the number of councils with no overall control to 10. This was just the start of an ongoing trend to less clear-cut political control of local authorities in Scotland.

At the 2003 elections, an increasing number of local authorities were left with no overall control (a fourfold increase since 1995), but minority administration and coalitions were still the less common options.

The 2107 local government elections were notable for the passage of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004.  This Act changed the electoral system for local government elections from First Past the Post to the Single Transferable Vote.

The 2012 election was the first local election since 1995 to be held without another election on the same day, and turnout was significantly lower across all local authority areas than 2007.

The SNP won the largest share of first preference votes. Both the SNP and Labour saw increases in their share of votes since the 2007 elections. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both saw reductions.

Usually Scottish local elections are held every four years. The 2017 election took place after an interval of five years, having been delayed from 2016 to avoid a clash with the Scottish Parliament election.

The 2017 local elections were also the first local elections where 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote.

The SNP, Conservatives and Scottish Green Party all saw their number of seats increase, with the number of seats falling for the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Independents.

No parties won outright control of a council area – there were three councils which fell under majority independent control, and the remaining 29 councils returned results providing for no overall control. This led to the formation of 19 coalitions, and 10 councils under the control of single party minority administration.

In short, in 1999 councils were generally under the control of one party, with a majority. This has become a thing of the past, leading to more and more elaborate collaborations, often involving two parties plus Independents, and sometimes taking the form of a minority coalition. In fact, the only major parties not to work together in a coalition following the 2017 election are Conservatives and the SNP. The Green party is the only party that does not contribute to a coalition of sorts.

Local authority powers

Scotland’s local authorities have largely maintained the same responsibilities since devolution., although in some areas powers and functions have been removed and in others additional responsibilities have been added.

Longstanding responsibilities and functions include:

  • the provision of schools and nurseries as well as acting as an advisory agent for educational matters and community learning.
  • providing social care for the elderly, people with disabilities, mental health problems and addiction as well as an advisory agent for support.
  • introducing and maintaining a local authority recycling scheme, educating the local community on recycling and environmental awareness and implementing waste reduction strategies.
  • dealing with parking related issues such as permits and tickets, improvement and maintenance of roads, pavements and cycle paths as well as public transport.
  • setting standards for business activities within a local authority in addition to licenses and permits, creating voluntary opportunities and promoting local job creation.
  • provision of council housing, reducing homelessness, providing advice and support to private tenants as well as dealing with planning applications.
  • waste management, including introducing a bin collection plan, provision of local council bins and dealing with litter.
  • provision and sustainability of museums, galleries, monuments, sports centres as well as promoting culture and sport performance.

For more detail, read our briefing Subject profile – local government in Scotland.

Major changes since 1999

There have been a number of reviews and changes to aspects of local government in Scotland since 1999, with various pieces of legislation and changes to national policy affecting local government.  This section of the blog sets out the main areas of change.

The Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2002 synchronised election dates for Scottish local government and Scottish Parliament elections.

The Local Government in Scotland Act 2003 introduced a requirement for local councils to collaborate with local bodies to deliver services ad part of the community planning process. It also paced a duty to seek ‘best value’ and advance wellbeing on councils.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of election was introduced to local elections following the passing of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004, which also provided for severance payments to be made to serving Councillors who were prepared not to stand for election in 2007. This undoubtedly contributed to the changes discussed above to local election results.

In 2007 the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), following a Joint Review Group signed a concordat, which “set out the terms of a new relationship between the Scottish Government and local government, based on mutual respect and partnership.”  In doing so, it committed to no structural reform of local government during that parliamentary session, and removed many previously ring-fenced grants.

The Scottish Local Government (Elections) Act 2009 decoupled local government election polling days from Scottish Parliament elections, essentially repealing 2002 legislation.

The Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services (aka the Christie Commission) explored how public services should change to meet the medium and long-term financial challenges and the expectations of the people of Scotland. It concluded that –

“The need for reform is now urgent. If it is not substantially achieved in this Parliament, the chance to fashion an effective, sustainable and valued form of delivering public services for the future may be lost. We cannot allow the obstacles that have hampered reform in the past to thwart the action that is now required.”

In 2013, the enactment of the Police and Fire Reform Act 2012 meant that police and fire services in Scotland were reallocated from local government to central government. This resulted in approximately 29,000 employees shifting from local government to the new central forces, and removed funding for police and fire services from the local government settlement.

In December 2011, the UK Government launched City Deals as part of its Unlocking Growth in Cities White Paper. The Glasgow City Region Deal was signed in August 2014, and since then subsequent City Region Deal and Growth Deals have been launched or are under negotiation to cover and involve all of Scotland’s local authorities.

The Public Bodies (Joint Working) (Scotland) Act 2014 paved the way for the introduction of Integrated Joint Boards for Health and Social Care delivery.

In 2014 COSLA convened the independent Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy to examine the evidence and engage widely about what should change within Scottish local government. The report contained recommendations on making democracy local, creating local tax and spending choices, securing local democracy, and making participation work. The report argued that –

“A radical transfer of power to communities is essential if we are to rebuild confidence in Scotland’s democracy and improve outcomes across the country”.

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 reformed areas such as community planning, community right to buy land, involvement of communities in public service delivery and communities taking on public assets.

The Scottish Government and COSLA established the Commission on Local Tax Reform, which reported in December 2015. The Commission argued in its report that –

“the current system of Council Tax must end, with any replacement designed to be fairer, more progressive and locally empowering.”

In March 2016, the Scottish Government published its proposals for reform of the Council Tax, which made some changes to the existing model rather than instigate a wider reform.  The Council Tax (Substitution of Proportion) (Scotland) Order 2016 applied changes to the multiplier model used to calculate Council Tax bills for properties on higher Council Tax Bands, which came in to effect on 1 April 2015. At the same time, the Scottish Government ended the Council Tax freeze which had been in place since 2007.

In December 2015 the Scottish Government announced it would review business rates. It established the independent Barclay review group, whose review report was published in August 2017. The Non-Domestic Rates (Scotland) Bill, which makes the required legislative changes to implement recommendations from the Barclay review was introduced in the Scottish Parliament in March 2019 and is currently going through the Parliamentary Bill procedure.

In December 2017, the Scottish Government and COSLA jointly launched the Local Governance Review, with interim consultation findings published in May 2019. This process is ongoing with legislation not expected within the current parliamentary session.


Looking at local government finance over the long term is challenging, because of changes made to the make-up of the local government settlement over the years.  Changes have been explored extensively in SPICe briefings however, and the general trend is one of declining local government funding despite occasional years where there have been modest increases.

More recently, the debate around local government financing has focused not just on declining budgets, but on increasing proportions of funding being ringfenced or tied to national policy. COSLA argued in its publication, Fair Funding for Essential Services 2019/20, that “Scottish Government policies continue to protect 58% of the available budget”.

As noted above, there have been calls for wider tax reform. Currently, as an average, local authorities receive around 56% of their funding from the Scottish Government’s General Revenue Grant, and roughly 22% from each of Non-Domestic Rates Income and Council Tax. This varies widely however – some local authorities rely far more heavily on the revenue grant provided by the Scottish Government and have relatively limited ability to raise funding through taxation, and others see most of their funding coming from Council Tax and NDR Income.

For more detail, read our historical and more recent briefings on local government finance, facts and figures.

A lot of change, and not much change at all

We can see that demographically and politically, there has been a great deal of change in local government since 1999. What hasn’t changed significantly, despite a number of commissions, reviews and pieces of legislation, is the fundamental structure of local government and the associated funding model.

Even at the dawn of the Scottish Parliament, the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament (“McIntosh Commission”) suggested that there should be an independent review of local government finance, and highlighted concerns about the power of general competence for local authorities, ring-fencing of funds and the financial disempowerment of local authorities.

In evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee on 9 October 2019, Professor James Mitchell said –

“the evidence is clear that that disempowerment has not been addressed. It comes in the form of local government’s autonomy to raise revenue being taken away. It is not that long ago—I remember the days—that 50 per cent of the revenue that local government spent was raised by local government. I also note the way in which central Government has gradually, over time, told local government what it ought to do, essentially creating local administration rather than local government. There is less autonomy…”

It remains to be seen whether calls for further tax-raising powers for and autonomy of local government will be met, but the outcomes of the local governance review will hopefully give an indication of the direction of travel.

Ailsa Burn-Murdoch, Senior Researcher, and Allan Campbell, Head of Financial Scrutiny Unit and Resources