Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

The Principle of Subsidiarity – Ben Thomson

The principle of subsidiary is a political term much promoted on both the left and right of the political spectrum, enshrined in many documents from the Maastricht Treaty to the Scottish Governments policy on public services but sadly rarely fully delivered by central governments and certainly not in Scotland.    Subsidiarity should be the guiding principle of how we construct local government making it responsible for delivering all local services and stimulating the local economy.  So, what exactly is subsidiarity?

Subsidiarity is the principle that a central authority should only have the responsibility for a delivering a task if it cannot be performed at a more local level or, in other words, political decisions should be taken as close to the citizen as possible.  It is an age-old debate which goes back Thomas Aquinas, “city, state, empire” and beyond.   However, there are two problems; the first is that in determining what cannot be performed at a local level, central politicians often consider local politicians largely incompetent.  The second is that it requires central politicians to relinquish an element of power and by nature politicians seem to find that hard to do.

On determining what cannot be done at a local level some things are relatively easy.  Few would argue that defence, monetary policy, large national infrastructure such as motorways, foreign affairs, international trade or border control can be effectively done at a local level.  These services need macro co-ordination to be effective. Indeed in the UK these areas are all reserved matters for Westminster.

At the other end of the scale there are certain services that are obviously local such as: housing and planning; waste collection and sewage; local transport and maintenance of roads; parks & recreation; local policing, fire services; local magistrates courts; primary, secondary and tertiary education; social care, primary healthcare emergency health services.  All these services and more are provided by local governments round the world including the Scandinavian countries which have one of the highest levels of subsidiary.  The real benefit of subsidiarity is that the more local the responsibility the more engaged the local community becomes and the more co-ordinated the service becomes to providing the community the service it wants.   For instance, when housing, social care and healthcare are the responsibility of local government then services such as caring for of the elderly can be co-ordinated in an approach best suited to the area and the community can be far more engaged.

In its policy document “Improving Public Services” the Scottish Government sets out 5 principles, the first is that community services should be based on “subsidiarity and local decisions”.  Unfortunately, these are nice words but the reality is not even all of the relatively straightforward local services as mentioned above are the responsibility of Scottish Local Councils.   Health services are run by regional health trusts reporting to Scottish Government; police, ambulance and fire services are run by separate central organisations, and even those areas that are left such as education, Scottish Government seems intent on interfering in the management of them.  It is a complete guddle with little clear responsibility and has certainly nothing to do with subsidiarity. 

There are then a number of areas of government that are in debate on whether they could be done at a local level, for instance secondary healthcare where there is a good argument to have specialised hospitals for operations where at a local level there are relatively few.  The biggest areas of contention are those of taxes, economic development and governance.  

In many counties round the world such as Sweden, USA or Swizerland local taxes (as opposed to federal, state or canton taxes) provide the majority of the local income.   It is not just the collection of the taxes but the setting of the taxes allowing communities to adapt taxes to suit the local population and economy.  Different local taxes can be used to suit the local environment and encourage more of the development in areas the local community wants.  For instance, an area with a high level of tourism might want to increase revenue to pay for services through a tourist tax or tax on second homes, whereas a predominantly residential area might want to increase revenue through higher property taxes.  At present local authorities only have only council tax they that can set and collect, which is a very outdated tax based on properties valued in 1991 and constrained by central government in its scope.

In addition, local government should have many more powers to train its work force appropriately through apprenticeships and through development grants to attract new businesses and grow existing ones in the area.

Lastly local citizens in English cities can now vote on their own form of governance in whether they want a traditional council or an elected executive major.   Although some English mayors have not performed well there is little doubt that the system can be very effective.   Therefore, if this is a power that can be shown to work at a local level why under the Scottish Governments own principles of subsidiarity can’t cities in Scotland decide on the type of local government that administers them.   A local elected Provost in Edinburgh for instance might have made the same mistakes over the tram but at least we would have had a clear person to hold accountable.

The advantage of a small country such as Scotland is that we can and should be bold.   Why don’t we really embrace subsidiarity rather than just have it as a slogan in policy documents.  We should pass down to local government as much responsibility including local policing, primary health, local courts, local tax raising as possible.  We should allow local citizens to choose their form of local government with votes for elected mayors.  Local people could then really engage with the services they get locally and determine the sort of local government that they feel suits them and local government could create local policy that best suits its citizens.

Ben Thomson, CBE is Scottish businessman and entrepreneur.   He is the author of Scottish Home Rule and founder of Reform Scotland.


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