The nature of the United Kingdom as a dynastic union with a nation-state coat of paint, more reminiscent of Austria-Hungary than France, is made clear not only from the three separate legal systems operating in tandem, (English Law, Scots Law and Northern Irish Law), but also from the unequal structure of its local government. The wave of reforms starting in the 1960s took a far more moderate approach in England, versus the dramatic reordering in the other Home Nations. As we shall see, this is hardly accidental, rather, the lesser entities of the Union made convenient laboratories for the passing Labour and Conservative governments in Westminster’s self-styled radical experiments in reconstructing the spaces of everyday political life. All in the name of better provision of public services and alleged decentralisation of the central state’s tight grasp over political power. A project which seems as illusory now as it did then. Despite the seeming disinterest in this topic, then as now, it stands out as a clear example of the unequal history of the members of the supposedly equal union, helping to explain the increasing disenchantment with the United Kingdom in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland alike, with a distant state apparatus making grand designs with little democratic input from the people it affects. Scotland was at the head of this process, starting in 1963.
Since 1996, Scotland has been divided into the thirty two unitary Council Areas (pictured above). They range in size from Dundee City at sixty kilometres squared to Highland at 25,660 kilometres squared – 428 times larger than Dundee, a third of the entire country, and slightly bigger than Slovenia. The result of this truly centralised and uneven setup is that Scotland would have the least councillors per head of any country in the European Union, and among the least in the First World. For comparison, there is one ‘local’ representative for every 4,270 people, compared to one in 200 in Austria, one in 400 in Germany, even one in 2,860 in the, also, strictly centralised England. The disparity is especially stark compared to other European countries in its size range. Mainland Denmark, at half the size of Scotland, with half a million more people, is divided into five regions and 98 municipalities. Norway is four times the size of Scotland and has almost the exact same population and, following a series of bitterly contested centralisation measures from 2016 to 2020, has 11 counties and 356 municipalities. For a country the same size as Scotland, Czechia has a population three million higher, retaining thirteen regions and 204 municipalities. Adding to the byzantine structure of the British administrative system are the Scottish registration counties, the Lord-Lieutenants areas, and the historic counties (pictured below), which as one should come to expect, are quite similar but not identical.
The historic counties are of course the old administrative structure of the country, which was abruptly torn asunder after centuries of gradual development in 1975. This old order consisted at its dissolution of 32 counties, two pairs of which were administered together, divided into 196 districts, as well as 176 small burghs, eighty large burghs, and four counties of cities with varying levels of autonomy from their county. Organic as it might have been, preserving local levels of community and decision-making in their various sizes, it was not for nothing that by the 1960s it was considered increasingly archaic and not suitable for its task of providing services, with its many small entities having overlapping responsibilities and obligations.
Starting the beleaguered reform process was the, still moderate, White Paper issued by the Conservative government in 1963. It proposed that the counties would be merged down to between ten and fifteen and the creation of a uniform two-level structure by abolishing the distinction between burgh and district and merging many smaller burghs. This was with the exception of the counties of cities, the country’s largest settlements of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee which were to remain unitary city councils. As we saw, this restructuring would bring the country in line with the general pattern of others in its size range, and would at least occur by merging together existing entities, making the transition less jarring than it could be.
Alas, the White Paper did not survive the Labour victory in the 1964 general election, with the new Wilson government disinclined to follow the course of their predecessors. Instead, they launched a “Radical review of local government” in 1966, meaning a royal commission. Ostensibly a more democratic way of facilitating this process rather than a government paper, its members were in large part removed from the day to day of local government. Headed by John Wheatley, later Lord Wheatley, a judge who was a formerly Solicitor General of Scotland and Labour MP for Edinburgh East, the commission consisted largely of Scottish MPs from the bigger cities and towns, with one exception from Labour, along with a few Scottish heads of trade unions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the distant Wheatley Commission in London arrived at the conclusion that a radical reordering of Scottish local government was necessary, declaring that at the most local level, the locality, also called the community, could not function as a place of government. Instead, it proposed dividing the country into seven regions and thirty-seven districts in its 1969 report (pictured below).
As is very clear from the map, it was both a radical break from the county structure but also has the clear foundation of the contemporary layout. Furthermore, it reveals the motivations for why certain boundary changes were made that today seem inexplicable. For example, the 1969 proposal makes clear why the Edinburgh Council Area stretches deep into the West and Midlothian countryside. As a leftover from the initial merger of East and Midlothian, along with it being the capital of the planned Forth Region (that included much of Fife), hence placing the South Queensferry and the Forth Bridge as part of city of Edinburgh had a certain logic that it does not seem to retain today.
In any case, the ball landed back in the other court with Conservative victory in 1970, which along with popular outcry over the proposal, set in motion another round of revision. The result was that the worst excesses of the Wheatley Commission were rethought, for example, the reversal of its proposed partition of Fife between three separate regions and reducing the size of the humongous Highlands and Islands region. That said, its centralising logic remained very much intact. The result was a set of major changes before it finally passed in Parliament in 1973, the plan (pictured below), with nine Regions, fifty-six Districts and three unitary island councils.
Long in the making, the 1973 reform coming into force in 1975, itself proved unable to stand up to the test of daily life. Most striking was the unevenness in the size of the regions. By far the largest was Strathclyde, with 2.3 million people almost consisting of half the country, with nineteen whole districts, in comparison to the three to five that was the average in the other regions, again with the exception of the still sizeable Highland. Thus, there was a mix of small two-level structures where tier divisions were unclear, as in Lothian and Fife, or large, cumbersome regions that were difficult to coordinate. The inevitable result was that they became easy targets for further rearrangement. It certainly was for the Major government, which, since Thatcher, had been generally proceeding with the abolition of larger two-tier structures of local government on the new ethos of them being undesirable and inefficient, as had been done in the Greater London and Metropolitan counties. Hence, the 1994 re-reform was passed, for the most part dissolving either the districts or regions where it was deemed the most appropriate by the powers that be. Leaving us with the current, disproportionate system we have today.
Curiously, the Scottish governments, since devolution in 1999, have proved themselves very cautious about any bold reform of its fundamental units. Beyond some tinkering with boundaries, community engagement in the form of councils, and establishing the single transferable vote for local elections, no serious reform proposals have been aired. It is perhaps not so odd, with the traumatic experiences of prolonged, contested, and ultimately undesirable remodelling leaving a sour taste among politician and populace alike. Indeed, the measures against the inadequacies of councils that are either far too large to be representative, as seen in the Highland, or too small to make a difference, not to mention being underfunded and thus further centralised, as was the case in 2012, when police and fire services were restructured on a national level.
The comparison to England is useful here as well. There, police and fire services remain largely at the county level. In addition, the country’s historic counties and local government survived largely intact, in spite of a series of rebranding and new metropolitan counties. A wiser approach learned from both Labour and Conservative experiments elsewhere, not to mention England’s nature as being more contested electorally, and far more important due to its size and population, mostly disincentivising similar radical approaches there. Though again, England still remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe, certainly for its size, which is hardly a model to aspire to.
The reform proposals that are being considered by the ongoing Local Governance Review (as per their interim report of May 2019) remain focused on the enduring need for greater community-level participation and democracy. Though its suggestions remain very centred on the existing paradigm of community councils and development trusts, it does briefly hint at the need for “designing completely new structures at the community level”. As sensible as this in all likelihood is, it does little to address the gap between regional and district government created in 1996, the distance between Wick and Inverness would still be immense, direct democracy or not. It bears to mention that reversing centralisation on the local level is not unprecedented elsewhere: Czechia more than doubled theirs in 2004, and such a thing should hardly be impossible in Scotland, even dissenting opinions in the Wheatley Commission thought there should be no more than ninety districts in the country. In any case, there seems to be an absence of political will and popular agitation for the time being, alienated by the reordering from above as they are. There it will likely remain until the impending horizon of independence is resolved one way or another.
Written by Inge Erdal
The National Archives of the UK (TNA), CAB 129/113/24. “Structure of Local Government in Scotland” (1963) [Digital copy].
Burn-Murdoch, Ailsa and Allan Campbell. “Local Government since Devolution – local governance or local administration?” Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) (14th November 2019), https://spice-spotlight.scot/2019/11/14/local-government-since-devolution-local-governance-or-local-administration/.
Local Government and Communities Directorate, “Local Governance Review: analysis of responses to Democracy Matters.” (16th May 2019), https://www.gov.scot/publications/local-governance-review-analysis-responses-democracy-matters/.
Davidson, Neil. The Origins of Scottish Nationhood.London: Pluto Press, 2000.
Sullivan, Willie. “Local government in Scotland is top-down and distant – but we can change that.” Electoral Reform Society (1st January 2019), https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/local-government-in-scotland-is-top-down-and-distant-but-we-can-change-that/.
Turnock, David. “The Wheatley Report Local Government in Scotland.” Area 2, 2 (1970), 10-12.
Welsh Parliament. “Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill (2019).” https://business.senedd.wales/mgIssueHistoryHome.aspx?IId=26688.
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