Forsyth proposes scheme to free Scottish councils

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, yesterday significantly advanced his strategy of devolving more power to local councils by indicating readiness to sweep away central government control over their operations.

The move will be seen as part of a wider political programme of countering Labour's commitment to a Scottish parliament by demonstrating that Tories in Scotland are prepared shift more power from central government to democratically- elected local authorities.

Mr Forsyth used a keynote speech to a rating conference in Peebles to announce that he intended to produce detailed plans for freeing up Scottish local councils by the end of the year. And he revealed that he had written to the Labour dominated Convention of Scottish Local Authorities asking for "ideas on which shackles they would like to throw off".

Mr Forsyth, who is widely thought to to be keen to remove capping of Scottish local authorities also underpinned his determination to strengthen local councils by inviting them to give him an assessment of what impact they expected an end to capping to have on levels of council tax.

The move suggests the Scottish Office has already moved further than the Government in England - where a debate over whether to continue capping is still unresolved - towards lifting capping as a means of giving councils more freedom.

The Scottish Secretary went out of his way in his speech to the Scottish conference of the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation to say that he had been "encouraged" by the contacts with COSLA and declared: "I want to restate my call to COSLA to join with me in strengthening the partnership between local government and the Scottish Office."

One early result could be a relaxation of controls which heavily restrict councils' rights to borrow money for projects like schools, transportation, roads and social work agencies. COSLA has been pressing for such a move.

It is not lost on some Tory strategists that new powers for elected Labour councils in Scotland could, in the long run, create second thoughts, at least among some Labour councillors, over the desirability of a powerful Scottish parliament. Mr Forsyth is said to be considering a wide-ranging agenda for the longer term which could result in the actual transfer of powers from central government to local authorities.