In a foreword to a report launched last Monday in Dover House, London, by the think tank ‘Onward’, Scottish secretary Alister Jack stated: "The Scottish public expects its two governments to work together constructively to address the issues that matter most to them." Alister Jack’s aspiration may be optimistic. The current dispute between Holyrood and Westminster over the ill-fated DRS (Don’t Rate Slater) scheme, has exposed how the SNP government has been driven into the imposition of impractical legislation by their eco-socialist Green partners. Businesses that were ordered to invest hundreds of millions in the ill- considered deposit return scheme will now demand massive compensation payments from the Scottish government for the plan’s postponement. Once again, our poor, beleaguered taxpayers, who already pay the highest taxes in Britain after 16 years of nationalist misrule, will have to foot the bill for the SNP/Green coalition’s epic incompetence. 

Had the appallingly inept Lorna Slater, the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity, sought earlier consultation with the Westminster government, instead of plunging ahead with her ideological obsession to save the planet, things may have turned out differently. But for Humza Yousaf and his team, ramping up their grudge and grievance rhetoric with Westminster, always takes precedence over any effort to achieve a constructive working relationship that would better serve the people of Scotland. The bottle return scheme and the SNP/Green government’s attempt to run a cart and horses through the UK Internal Market Act, is only the latest example of their talent for picking fights with London. We’ve already witnessed the absurd waste of money challenging the Westminster government’s right to block indyref2, which, under Nicola Sturgeon’s tarnished leadership, went all the way to the Supreme Court. Then Alister Jack had to step in yet again over Ms Sturgeon’s determination to breach the UK Equality Act with her shambolic gender recognition legislation.

That’s why Alister Jack’s call for a better working relationship between the two governments is the central focus of the ‘Onward’ think tank’s report ‘Beyond Holyrood’, written by the former Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart MP. The report explores ways of boosting local economies by helping to stimulate business. Under Nicola Sturgeon’s term in office, there was excessive centralisation of public services, from police to fire and transport, often with damaging results. Scottish local government has been starved of cash, with tax rates either frozen completely or capped at 3% for 15 years. Devolution has been effectively hi-jacked by Holyrood under the SNP. Power has been hoarded in Edinburgh rather than London. While greater powers have been devolved to Holyrood, there has been no devolution onwards to local government - arguably the reverse has happened through policies such as council tax caps. That is why the Westminster government introduced Regional Growth Deals, as a way of ensuring regional partnerships, led by local authorities and working with the private sector, could become a key driver for economic growth. The Growth Deals have been a huge success, stimulating business investment and delivering more money and power to the people of Scotland. More than £1.5 bn was invested in schemes such as the supply of cutting-edge medical scanners in Glasgow, a net zero technology centre in Aberdeen, the re-development of Inverness Castle and a new concert hall in Edinburgh. 

With the current deals reaching their conclusion within the next 3 years, plans for Growth Deals 2.0 are now in the pipeline. But for the next phase to be a success, Holyrood and Westminster will have to agree to work in partnership. By empowering local areas to set their own priorities for economic expansion, Growth Deals 2.0 will be combined with other government funds from Holyrood and Westminster to pump-prime the private sector and secure the best long-term outcomes. But this will mean Humza Yousaf and his chums turning from confrontation to collaboration. It will also require reliable accountability for the level of funds being distributed. According to Iain Stewart’s ‘Beyond Holyrood’ report, perhaps the best way of achieving such accountability would be to introduce a system of directly elected provosts, who would be able to champion their areas and promote private sector investment, ensuring that their local needs are not overly dominated by Holyrood and the Scottish Government. This would be a meaningful devolution of power.

Directly elected provosts would echo the system in England where leaders are elected to cover multiple authorities in a metropolitan area, informally known as Metro Mayors. Examples of Metro Mayors include the Mayor of London – Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of Greater Manchester – Andy Burnham, and the Mayor of the West Midlands – Andy Street. These three have all built a powerful national and international profile, transforming the governance of their cities and regions and improving the profile of local government. In London, for example, the intervention of the mayor enabled projects to get off the ground that may otherwise have failed to gel, such as Crossrail and the successful Olympics bid.

We need to move away from the constant fixation on the strained relations between Holyrood and Westminster, which is a distraction from the importance of local government. Our councils and the families and businesses they represent are struggling to recover from the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the impacts of the Ukraine war. Directly elected provosts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfries, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, and other areas, would provide the figureheads that could make a real difference, opening the door to more accountability, genuine scrutiny, less secrecy, while driving development and economic progress. The provosts could be directly elected by the public across the whole council area, instead of in a single ward, giving them a strong democratic mandate, with their elections coinciding with full council elections. They would have direct accountability to the whole local population. The directly elected provosts could then appoint cabinets from the ranks of their elected colleagues.

In his closing remarks in the foreword to the ‘Beyond Holyrood’ report, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack says “Working together, we can make real change.” Let us hope the SNP/Green coalition gets the message.