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  By a Newsnet reporter

The Scottish government has promised that a Yes vote in next year's independence referendum will usher in a new era of local democracy in Scotland with a commitment to enshrine the status and rights of local authorities in a new Scottish constitution.

Addressing the conference of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) in St Andrews on Friday – during a session on the referendum debate – Scottish National Party Depute Leader and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out two key themes supporting a Yes vote.

Ms Sturgeon committed the Scottish Government to working together with local government to pursue a proactive policy agenda to improve services for local people, rather than having to mitigate damaging policies from Westminster – such as the Bedroom Tax and cut to Council Tax benefit – by governments that the people of Scotland didn’t vote for.

The Deputy First Minister also argued that independence is the only constitutional option which enables the role and status of local government to be enshrined in a written constitution – as is mainstream in the rest of Europe – and Ms Sturgeon committed the SNP to supporting this for the constitution of an independent Scotland.

However, Labour MP and Better Together head, Alistair Darling described Ms Sturgeon's vision as "hot air". 

Responding to the Deputy First Minister he said: "I've heard what has been said about a written constitution. I was a lawyer once, Nicola was a lawyer as well.

"I'm innately suspicious of written constitutions.  A written constitution without the resources to back it up is hot air."

Referring to claims made by his own pro-Union campaign following their release of a leaked paper containing edited sections of a Scottish government document, Mr Darling added: "We now find out that there is within the Scottish government some understandable thinking about the problems an independent Scotland would face.

"In particular, what is shows is that it faces a very uncertain landscape where the spending pressures are great and are likely to increase and where cash is likely to be short."

Constitutions - a background

Constitutional status would protect local authorities from party politically motivated changes by central government.  Under Westminster, local authorities in the UK currently have no such protection, and have been subject to numerous changes over the years which some argue have stripped local authorities of vital powers and broken the links between communities and the local authorities which represent them.

In 1973 the Conservative government of Edward Heath passed the Local Government (Scotland) Act which abolished Scotland's traditional counties and burghs and in 1975 replaced them with a system of regions, including the vast Strathclyde region which contained almost half the Scottish population.  Critics complained that the new system had been introduced in an effort to forestall the growing demand for a Scottish Parliament by creating a system of local government which was incompatible with devolution.  The unpopular regions were abolished in 1996, before the setting up of the Scottish Parliament the following year.

In an even more controversial move, in 1986 the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council, which was administered by her Labour rivals.  The policies of council leader Ken Livingston brought the authority into direct conflict with Mrs Thatcher's political and social agenda, and the GLC was seen as a powerful vehicle for opposition to the Conservative government.  London remained the only capital city in Europe without its own city-wide local government until the introduction of the London Assembly and the Greater London Authority in 2000.

Constitional protection for local authorities would protect councils from such politically motivated changes, and is a feature of the constitutions of a number of European states.  In Sweden the Instrument of Goverment, one of the four basic laws comprising the Swedish constitution, specifies that local goverment is to be established on a regional and district basis. Chapter 14 of the Instrument of Goverment specifies the powers and duties of local authorities in the country.  The full English language text of the Swedish constitution is available by clicking here.

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