2021 Holyrood Election – what are the parties saying about community power in Scotland?

April 28, 2021  

Voters across Great Britain will head to the polls on 6 May 2021 for important national and local elections. But what are the parties saying about community power and reforming local government? We’ve read the manifestos so you don’t have to. Part 2: the Holyrood election in Scotland.

In this series: Part 1 on the Senedd election in Wales and Part 3 on mayoral elections in England.

The Scottish National Party (SNP)

If anything can be certain in modern British politics, it is that the SNP will be the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after May’s election. The only question is whether their electoral dominance will be enough to secure them an outright majority (at least 65 seats). Some opinion polls are currently pointing in this direction.

Assuming that the SNP will be the main party of government in Scotland for the next five years, the SNP’s manifesto indicates that the Scottish Parliament will be busy examining a batch of new community power legislation. The party has committed to bring forward the following bills:

  • Community Wealth Building Bill to require local authorities and public bodies to spend in their local communities. (p.40)
  • Local Democracy Bill to “ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to those they affect most” and empower communities. (p.40)
  • Land Reform Bill to introduce a pre-emption in favour of community buy-out where title to land is transferred. (p.40)
  • Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill to require all public bodies and local authorities in Scotland to consider the long-term impact of their policy decisions on sustainable development and people’s wellbeing. (p.72)

The SNP also plans to:

  • consult on how the Community Empowerment Act could be expanded
  • set up annual citizens’ assemblies to look at complex issues, including council tax reform and the role of local government
  • establish a citizens’ assembly for children and young people under the age of 16
  • and double the value of the Scottish Land Fund, which helps communities take ownership of land and buildings, to £20 million per year by 2026.

Scottish Conservatives

Likely to be the leading opposition party in the Scottish Parliament for a second term, the Scottish Conservatives have committed in their manifesto to support the empowerment of local government.

The Scottish Conservatives intend to bring forward a Communities Bill to ensure that councils receive a set percentage of the Scottish Government’s budget every year (p.21). They are also seeking to amend planning laws so that the Scottish Government cannot overturn local planning decisions. The party supports communities’ “first right to buy” when local businesses are on the verge of closure (p.22).

If in government, the Scottish Conservatives promise to ensure that multi-year settlements will be provided to voluntary sector organisations in receipt of national funding. Local authorities will be supported do the same for those in receipt of local funding. (p.25)

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour’s best hope from the election is to narrow the gap with the Scottish Conservatives in second place.

Scottish Labour’s manifesto pledges support for a “Right to Space to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens” (p.31). The party is keen to promote community wealth building approaches across Scotland.

Local authorities will receive multi-year capital and revenue funding settlements and more devolved powers, possibly including tax powers following a “complete review” (p.45). The party also plans to reintegrate services back into local government from leisure trusts.

Scottish Green Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats

Both parties secured five seats in the 2016 Holyrood election and have ambitions to add to their haul this time round.

Most likely to succeed is the Scottish Green Party, whose manifesto includes pledges to:

  • invest in dedicated community organisers across Scotland
  • increase support for community ownership; formalise national and local citizens’ assemblies
  •  and place statutory duties on local authorities and the wider public sector to “support and enable new levels of local governance” (p.71).

The party also supports a “widespread decentralisation of powers” to local government, including tax powers, and will increase the annual allowance of councillors to make it a full-time role, thereby promoting more diverse representation in local democracy (p.71).

The Scottish Liberal Democrats promised in their manifesto to offer local communities the opportunity to set up a burgh or island council to serve their area, established by a charter defining its functions, to give a “truly local democratic focus to services” (p.44). The party will also “establish a right” for communities to protect threatened local facilities (p.21) and give communities “control over the routes and timetables for bus services” (p.29). Local authorities will be awarded a full power of general competence and receive powers to set local domestic and business taxation (p.44).

Other parties

These parties face an uphill battle to win any seats in the 2021 election.

Reform UK – formerly the Brexit Party – wants to abolish a range of taxes, including business rates for all small and medium firms and the apprenticeship levy.

The Alba Party manifesto outlines plans to establish a Citizens’ Chamber for Holyrood. This would be a permanent citizens’ assembly of 100 people with powers to review legislation and hold inquiries on any subject.

The Abolish The Scottish Parliament Party is campaigning to return Scotland to direct rule from Westminster and give more powers to local government.

Key takeaway

Of course the independence debate will be the main controversy in the next Scottish Parliament. But there seems to be more consensus on giving powers from Edinburgh to local communities than breaking away from the rest of the UK.

The future of local government provides more of a bone of contention. The Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, Scottish Green Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats used their manifestos to commit themselves to empowering local authorities.

The SNP’s manifesto does not make firm promises to do so until the Local Governance Review is complete and a citizens’ assembly has considered council tax reform and the wider powers of local government.

The SNP’s Local Democracy Bill, which will be brought forward following the completion of the Local Governance Review, will be keenly scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament’s opposition parties.