The People’s Postcode Lottery

Seemingly innocuous drop-down menus can be cause for a lot of head-scratching. I grew up in a place called Netherlee. The postcode and telephone number put it in Glasgow, but it isn’t. I should technically pay a boundary charge of 33% when I get a black cab home after a night out because its actually in East Renfrewshire, and my parents’ house is about 500m over the boundary. So, most of the time I have to render my address online as [City] GLASGOW, [Region] EAST RENFREWSHIRE, which really makes no sense as the town is bigger than the region. It’s even more annoying when occasionally confronted with a website that doesn’t recognise the almost 20 year old existence of unitary authorities in Scotland, and gives instead only the dreaded LANARKSHIRE. Netherlee, and indeed Glasgow haven’t been in Lanarkshire since when William Wallace was a lad, and for the last 300 years Lanark has been in Glasgowshire if anything.

Netherlee isn’t the only example – people in Cumbernauld, for example, have a Glasgow postcode despite being in North Lanarkshire Council (HQ in Motherwell, ML 01334) They are represented at Westminster and (more reliably by Jamie Hepburn) at Holyrood by the same people who represent Kilsyth, in the East Dumbartsonshire council area. You see where this is going – Scotland is a mish-mash of health boards, postcodes, Fire Brigades and councils, a rich tapestry. The current devolved Government is getting round to dealing with the worst anomalies, and it doesn’t really matter. We get by. Even if no one, from the man on the street to the MEP/MP/MEP they write a complaint to is always entirely sure who does what and why.

I first started to realise that my little hang up about Glasgow not being in Lanarkshire wasn’t that daft after all when I lived in France. I lived in the 10th arrondissement of the commune of Marseille, in the département of Bouches du Rhône, in the région of Provences-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur. Each unit was related the others in a way which, for example, East Renfrewshire Council is not linked to Greater Glasgow Health Board. While the last two can quibble over allocation of, say, the care of mental health patients in the community, because the provisions are all wrapped up in an act of parliament (or even worse, they aren’t). France gets round all of this by having a constitution which sets out exactly who does what, and who you can make an angry phone call to when they don’t. Further, these territorial units have existed pretty much unchanged since 1792 – French governments don’t often talk about local government reorganisation.

This may seem a bit facile – we didn’t have a revolution, and the Gallic need for bureaucratic order can often create entities that exist only on paper, and stamp all over local and regional identities that our relatively asymmetric system has protected. There is no reason to say that we can’t continue to get rid of the worst excesses with devolution, whether it be creating a single Police force, or letting some local councils pool resources to make efficiency savings. And Westminster has allowed Scotland to do as it sees fit in the past in terms of local government (even if that meant cutting two of its largest cities off at the knees through the removal of their respective tax bases).

Except it not really facile. The dogs dinner that is the provision of our local services speaks not only to the death rattle of the British Empire, but to a much deeper problem – that of a deeply centralised British state that (in all of the UK) never seems unduly bothered about a lack of engagement in local democracy, because it knows the prospect of reorganising it would be too gargantuan a task to even consider. I accept that France too is, for different reasons, over centralised, but institutionally there exists the mechanism for power to be moved away from the centre.

Pre-devolution, the passive-aggressive relationship between (Labour and Tory) Scotland Offices and (soft nationalist) Labour councils led to the formation of a local government system that was already fairly different to the one in the rest of the UK. Holyrood came along in 1999 and added 129 politicians often drawn from the ranks of local government, who have succeeded not only in allowing the most cunning and idle of our 72 MPs to fade into half-cut obscurity, but also further confused any idea we had of who did what.

Many people have pointed out that MSPs are doing things that would be much better done at a local level without proposing exactly what could be done about it – so indulge me for a moment: the simplest and most efficient way to stop this happening would be writing down what the jobs of each respective layer of government are on a piece of paper and calling it a constitution. The UK doesn’t have anything to do with such things, so if you’re like me and get peevish about inconsistent information about Scotland contained online, you’re most likely to get it in 2016, after a yes vote.

So, indulge me even further: why don’t we make this constitution split Scotland up into 8 regions. (Let’s just make them the Scottish Parliament regions for now, that’s easiest) Each of these regions would be split up into Burghs (many of which still exist if you know where to look) and then these into Districts. (for which a catchier Scots or Gaelic word must surely exist) The Constitution would deal with which jobs each would have have, and make sure the relations with each were as rational as possible. I could draw a diagram, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Districts would be administered by voluntary, Community Councils, for which there exist some encouraging models; and the Burghs and Regions by directly elected members, who would be paid a bit more than out existing councillors in order to fulfil a dual mandate.

Each would know its relation to the other, and also to the national parliament at Holyrood – real democracy would come closer to the people, and I’d never get annoyed by another drop-down menu again. All from one piece of paper – Quality.

This piece first appeared on the 2016 Wish Tree blog in October 2013