Policy Papers

Centralism versus localism? Democracy versus efficiency? The perennial challenges of Scottish local government organisation

Michael Pugh |

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Executive Summary

  • Scotland’s present local government arrangements have come under sustained criticism for their remoteness from local communities and disconnectedness between local citizens and municipal institutions. 
  • The Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee has examined these problems and local government reforms look likely in the aftermath of the independence referendum, whatever its outcome. 
  • Local citizens should be consulted about the governance of their communities, in the hope of reconnecting people and the institutions that govern them. Digital technology increases the scope for this, both in the design of local government structures and in their decision-making processes.
  • History offers important and attractive models that could solve Scotland’s local government malaise. Each of the four major re-organisations of Scottish local government since 1833 have their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • From 1833 until about 1890, Scotland operated its distinctive legislative framework, inspired by the liberal notion of self-government, which enabled local communities to set up municipalities, sometimes on a small scale relative to population and geography. Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, local self-government became less influential in the face of new ideas and recognition of the inefficiencies of over-localised municipal organisation. These factors led to larger, more centralised authorities.
  • The 1969 Wheatley Report proposals for a two-tier system of regional and district councils, elected by local citizens, abolished administrative units with nineteenth-century origins in 1975.
  • 1996 saw further reform, creating 32 unitary authorities, which were intended to gather all local services under one roof. These structures have been too remote from local communities.  
  • The key question for Scottish local government after the referendum is how to reconcile the best aspects of local self-government, community identity and civic voluntarism with mass democracy? Above all, history suggests one size, shape and structure of local government would not fit all Scottish communities. 


What is the ideal balance of power and division of responsibilities between central and local government? To what extent should local problems be solved locally, without risking geographical inequity of public services like health, education and social work, which underpin basic human rights?  Scotland’s experience of local government, since Victorian times noted for its distinctiveness in both the British Isles and international contexts, offers much insight to policy makers mulling over these dilemmas. Local government’s role looks central to post-referendum discussions, whether Scotland becomes independent or remains part of a renewed union-state. In March 2014, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown advocated a ‘radical’ re-empowerment of Scotland’s local communities. More tangibly, the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA)'s Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy  is due to make recommendations on increasing democracy and centralisation, and the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee has just published the findings of an Inquiry into the Flexibility and Autonomy of Local Government.  This policy paper offers long-term historical context and considers potential solutions to the contemporary problems of Scottish local democracy, taking into account the most recent proposals for reform.

A landmark 2012 report by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which aims to promote social justice through radical policies, had highlighted that present-day Scottish local government arrangements are extreme and unusual in the European context for their number of councillors by population. This conclusion was based on research by Purdam and colleagues (2008), which evidenced Scotland’s low election turnout, low number of subnational governments in relation to population, and low ratio of councillors to citizens and high ratios of citizens to local authorities.  Additionally, Allan McConnell notes that the autonomy afforded to Scottish local authorities remains a ‘crucial area of contest’ between Holyrood and town halls, despite local government’s elected basis and vital functions.  How did Scotland’s local state reach what many analysts have characterised as an acute and sustained crisis of democratic accountability? What might be done, drawing on history to improve this situation against the backdrop of globalisation, multilevel governance and what R.A.W. Rhodes has described as the 'hollowing out of the state'?

This policy paper charts the development of Scottish local government from the 1830s, when communities began to exercise liberal notions of ‘local self-government’. This developed under a framework of enabling legislation from Westminster, providing for distinctively Scottish experiments in ratepayer democracy.  These developments were eventually countered by municipal centralisation and territorial consolidation, as concerns about efficiency grew in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The paper outlines the experience of local self-government in communities surrounding nineteenth-century Glasgow, before considering a series of twentieth-century reorganisations.  It ends with reflections on the relations between central / devolved government and Scotland’s 32 unitary authorities from their inception in 1996 until the eve of the 2014 independence referendum.

Particular attention is given to the perennial tensions between local democratic accountability and centralising agendas that arise from pursuit of effectiveness, equity and efficiency in public service provision.  Scotland’s major political parties, irrespective of their stance on legislative devolution and independence, have favoured centralised, top-down policy formulation at the expense of older ideals of  'local self-government'. Without uncritically celebrating the past, the history of Scotland’s local government nonetheless offers important and attractive models that could solve its current local government malaise.

Scotland’s (local) police state, 1833-1890

Before 1832, Scotland had an extremely patchwork and ad hoc system of local government. Various forms of traditional burgh administration governed established urban settlements.  More rural communities were administered at the county level by remote and (relative to England) laissez faire Commissioners of Supply and Justices of the Peace. These officials, who were not elected by or accountable to the vast majority of inhabitants, had few if any powers in relation to essential services like public health, lighting or paving. These issues were becoming increasingly essential in the nineteenth century as industrialisation and urbanisation gathered pace in particular localities. Such changes did not occur uniformly in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, so it was difficult for Scottish central government institutions – in particular the offices of the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General – to devise a coordinated approach to local government and their improvement schemes. 

In this vacuum, from 1771 onwards, a variety of larger and established burghs began to secure ‘police’ powers for themselves through the passage of parliamentary legislation bespoke to their local circumstances, although their powers did not encompass public health and related issues. Such communities often became ‘police burghs’.  These acts – many of which included what would now be called ‘sunset clauses’ - did not come cheaply or easily, and their highly individualistic character posed problems of consistency and uniformity, in terms of the powers granted to each community that adopted them.  The bespoke local acts for towns like Edinburgh did not allow municipal leaders much flexibility in solving unforeseen problems around policing and public health. Also, the expense and inconvenience of renewing local acts when these expired could distract from the daily business of local government.  But their adoption in 25 communities, including Glasgow in 1800 and Edinburgh in 1805, testified to an increasingly urgent need to empower communities to find solutions to  local problems. Yet by 1830, it was clear that an overarching general police act for Scotland, from which local communities could ‘cherry-pick’ provisions most relevant to their particular needs, would be more effective and less consuming of parliamentary time than the existing bespoke acts. 

The 1831 Convention of Royal Burghs (COSLA’s forerunner until 1975) claimed unanimous support among its members for such an act, arguing that this would provide ‘great utility’ for removing obstacles to municipal progress. The Whigs’ landslide victory in the 1832 general election added impetus to the cause for such reforms, not least in Scotland.  The 1833 Burgh Police (Scotland) Act was passed with the support of both the government and its Tory opposition. It embodied the liberal notion that the inhabitants of a community should be free to identify local priorities, and to decide, through elected representatives, how to pay for these. This principle underpinned successive iterations and replacements of the Act down to 1889.  

The 'police' aspect of general police legislation derived from classical notions of a locally accountable polis or city-state, such as ancient Athens. From the 1830s-onwards 'police' powers encompassed matters such as crime and punishment (the most recognisably ‘police’ part in modern usage), but also the essential services of sewage, waste disposal, water and utility provision, paving, lighting, and maintaining streets, nuisance control and general public health: in short the arrival of recognisably modern local government on the Scottish scene. The permissive, relatively grassroots approach to the creation and empowerment of local authorities embodied in the 1833 General Police Act endured several replacement acts substantively unchanged until 1889. Indeed, many of the local authorities created under it outlived their founding legislation in one municipal form or another until the 1975 reorganisation. The Victorian general police framework was certainly resilient. As Graeme Morton has argued, the proliferation and longevity of such police burghs testified to nineteenth-century Westminster's recognition of the Scottish urban property owners’ desire for and capacity to exercise 'local self-government'. This was a higher priority than any demands for national independence. Morton characterised local self-government as a response, albeit an imperfect one, ‘by the people to an invitation to empowerment from the centre’. Simon Szreter has written about the prestige enjoyed by late Victorian municipal government for its proactive approach to social problems in communities throughout Britain.  

National efficiency meets municipal socialism and centralisation

Yet, like the classical polis that inspired it, the Scottish version of local self-government was not characterised by equality or democracy for all inhabitants. From the mid-nineteenth century, local citizens’ ward committees were established to scrutinise the administrative and voting record of incumbent councillors and officials, as well as to grill candidates before elections. This meant burgh leaders were increasingly accountable to self-selected groups of ratepayers. Although the self-selective aspect was not ideal, such scrutiny did represent a democratic gain. 

Further difficulties were, paradoxically, created through the local flexibility of the legislative framework for local self-government. For example, Scotland’s burghs ranged in population from Kingussie (founded as a burgh in 1866) at 700 to Clydebank (1886) at 10,000. In 1904, Fabian scholar Mabel Atkinson noted that whilst the general police legislation had avoided ‘chaos’, it had left many anomalies resulting from the uneven adoption of its many options by communities of differing shapes and sizes. Sometimes, as in Dumfries and Maxwelltown, police powers were invoked in a way that overlapped with the jurisdiction of traditional burghs resulting in a degree of confusion and duplication of function. The partial collapse of a stadium stand during a 1902 home international Scotland v England football match in Ibrox, Govan, leading to the deaths of 28 and injury of 550 supporters, drew opprobrium for Glasgow Town Council’s failure to inspect the stadium. Yet the stadium’s location in Govan, then independent of Glasgow, meant that Glasgow had no remit in the matter.   

Many burghs, Govan in particular, clung to ‘independence’ when their incorporation into consolidated local authorities could have made more objective sense in terms of pooling resources and sharing amenities, as well as adopting a fairer rating regime for less wealthy inhabitants.  The nine police burghs surrounding Glasgow, the last and most populous of which were only absorbed by the city in 1912, were a cause of particular irritation to Atkinson and other progressive campaigners.  Between 1869 and 1912, the nine burghs resisted the city of Glasgow's campaign to absorb them. The civic leaders of Partick and Govan, who coordinated the resistance, argued that the burghs were more compact and efficient than what they perceived as an over-centralised, tax-hungry city authority.

There were wider principles at stake in these politico-legal tussles.  In 1869, Glasgow’s onetime Liberal Lord Provost William Collins remarked that,

centralisation [i.e. within Glasgow] has its draw backs as well as its advantages. And one of the draw backs is the difficulty of maintaining over too widely an extended area that thorough supervision which is so necessary to secure economical management.

This problem has troubled political thinkers from the ancient Greeks to the Jimmy Reid Foundation in the early twenty-first century. The latter’s 2012 report argued for the creation of more meaningfully local tiers of government beneath Scotland’s 32 unitary authorities. At the international level, the European Union’s founding principle of subsidiarity - that decisions ought to be taken at the most local level consistent with efficient administration possible - was reaffirmed in the 2008 Lisbon Treaty. Indeed, both the New Labour governments and the current Coalition have contemplated ‘double devolution’ (i.e. from central / national government to local government, and then from local government to neighbourhoods), and encouraging councils to withdraw from direct responsibility for public service provision, whether by ‘contracting out’ to private enterprise or handing over to the voluntary sector. 

The principle of the 'community of interest' was also frequently discussed during the disputes over the status of the burghs surrounding Glasgow before 1912. In 1887, Glasgow’s civic leaders faced the burghs’ allegations that they were intent on municipal ‘aggression’ in ‘a scheme of selfish aggrandisement at the expense of their neighbours’.  Glasgow denied this charge, insisting:

all that is involved in the extension of the boundaries of the city is the equalisation of privileges and obligations, and the establishment of community of interest […]

In response, Govan, Partick and the other burghs took great pains to emphasise their communities’ separate and independent history and sense of place from the city. For example, Govan could legitimately point to its Viking age origins and what archaeologists still recognise as its ‘deeply grounded sense of place’. But community of interest was, as the burgh leaders ultimately discovered to their cost, a double-edged sword. 

The ‘interest’ element of community of interest neatly embodied the powerful points made by Glasgow that, since its surrounding districts shared a collective stake in vital assets and utilities like water, gas, roads, tramways and its city improvement scheme, their costs should be borne equally by all who benefited from them. As the city’s 1887 boundary commission submission had it: ‘a large proportion of the wealthier citizens reside in the suburbs, and enjoy the advantages of connection with the city, while they are free from its taxation.’ Additionally, when taken over by the city, these bodies would become more democratically accountable to a larger group of ratepayers. 

Before their capitulation in 1912, the burghs made various representations that their communities were self-sufficient or that the various public works operated by the city were expensive luxury items rather than essentials of urban life. These arguments against consolidation tended to strain credibility. For instance, in 1912 Govan’s Provost David Pollok McKechnie risibly declared that Glasgow’s provision of municipal wash-houses for families without their own domestic baths - which his burgh did not provide - was not ‘a good thing’. But the objections, even when spurious, were anchored in the principle that Parliament would not permit annexing a municipality without its representatives’ explicit consent. There were practical problems inherent in the almost automatic right of communities of virtually any size and population to incorporate themselves as quasi-autonomous municipalities. Yet there was something admirable in this tacit form of entrenching rights to local self-determination. Had such a principle continued to be honoured later in the century, it is almost certain Scotland’s local government reorganisation of 1995-6, as well as the abolition of the Greater London Council, would either not have occurred, or would have proceeded along more considered, consultative lines. 

The narratives of municipal socialism and national efficiency that proved so influential in Westminster’s assenting to Govan and Partick’s incorporation into Greater Glasgow in 1912 were underscored by the election of pro-consolidation Labour councillors in both burghs’ 1911 elections. Labour and radical Liberal campaigners in both burghs had since the mid-1880s campaigned against a variety of police burgh inequities relative to the city. Foremost among these was a regressive rating regime, whereby working-class residents of burghs paid proportionately higher rates than their wealthier neighbours, in stark contrast to the city’s differential rating system in which poorer households paid half-rates. Failure to pay led to the loss of one’s municipal vote.  Other grievances included the skewing of ward boundaries to corral and minimise potential working-class representation, the siting of public parks away from working-class neighbourhoods, and a steadfast refusal to build public baths and wash-houses. The burghs’ pro-independence councillors highlighted their rates, which were lower in absolute terms than the city’s, and inveighed against the dangers of over-centralisation.

The Labour Party suffered as a result of the consolidation. The polls for enlarged municipal wards that replaced the burghs were topped in 1912 by Unionist former Govan and Partick magistrates.  Moreover, sitting Labour town councillor Hugh Lyon in 1911 characterised the Town Council as more like a cosy private members’ club than a popular tribunal.  Not until 1935 did Glasgow gain its first Labour Lord Provost, and by then Scotland’s municipal structures had been significantly re-jigged.

A two-tier structure emerges: 1929-1975

The exercise of local self-government in Scotland’s communities was always contingent, circumscribed by the operations of a complex legislative framework and a convoluted network of joint boards and commissions. This significantly limited each burgh’s freedom of manoeuvre in many areas of responsibility, such as turnpike trusts, county road trustees, police, prisons and school boards. McConnell notes this made for an ‘exceptionally complicated and diverse’ system of local government involving 869 parish councils, 33 county councils and 200 burgh councils by 1900, which co-existed with a plethora of boards and commissions. Even following some streamlining by 1929, the mosaic of Scottish local government remained complex and uneven, comprising 21 large burgh councils, 176 small burgh councils, three county councils and 196 district councils. There were overlapping arrangements for services like police, fire, valuation and social work.

As Jerry White has shown, the arrival of something approaching full representative democracy, coupled with the shift in favour of Keynesian economic thinking and state intervention after the Second World War, meant local government across the UK inherited a much wider range of responsibilities. These included, but were not limited to, town planning, social services and economic development. The 1960s Labour governments had a particular focus on long-term planning and regional development. Scottish local government’s capacity to deliver this attracted serious scrutiny.  So in 1966, Lord Wheatley was tasked with leading a Royal Commission to investigate.

The Commission's 1969 report began with the ominous, and still valid, assertions that ‘[s]omething is seriously wrong with local government in Scotland’ and ‘a completely new structure is called for’.  It exposed the convoluted and inefficient institutional structures built on arbitrary boundaries, creating conflict and inhibiting coordination across and between authorities, noting these were often the by-product of ‘nineteenth-century elements’. It challenged the proliferation of needlessly small authorities, duplicating resources. These problems resulted in inefficient and unequal allocation of financial resources, requiring equalisation by the central state, resulting in excessive dependence on the latter. The report found the archaic workings of Scottish local authorities inimical to public understanding and participation in the governance of local communities. 

The upshot of these failings was a local democratic deficit, compounded by Scottish Office dominance in an unbalanced relationship between central and local state. Wheatley wanted the balance of power shifted in favour of a more streamlined and integrated system of local government, which would be more democratically accountable and connected to local communities. However, the resulting abolition of the former burghs and their reincarnation as district councils may also have been an unnecessary break with a rich historical legacy, severing the link between local communities and their burghs – however imperfect - which had survived for several decades if not centuries.

Regional authorities and political controversy: 1975-1996

Following the Commission,  a two-tier system of local government was established, whereby large regional councils contiguous to ‘genuine communities’ exercised responsibility for major planning, water and sewage, education, social work, housing, police and fire, giving effect to previously untapped economies of scale. Beneath these regional councils, more localised services would be delivered by multiple district councils focused on local planning, housing improvement, parks and recreation, libraries, environmental health and licensing. 

Below these two statutory tiers, embodied in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, passed under Prime Minister Edward Heath’s Conservative government (reflecting a degree of bipartisan support), local communities also had the option to set up supplementary community councils. The thinking behind community councils seemed to combine the voluntary and permissive aspects of the long-defunct general police legislation with an element of the deliberative scrutiny of councillors’ voting and administrative records under the ward committee system that had operated in many Scottish burghs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Under the Act, nine regions and 53 districts were established in 1975, in addition to three all-purpose island councils for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. By 1983, over 1,000 such community councils had been established, covering 80 per cent of Scotland’s population. In their early years, the new two-tier structures were criticised for perceived remoteness from local people and bureaucratic unwieldiness by the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Liberals and parts of the media, although this seems to have been motivated by ideological assumptions not evidence. It should also be noted that community councils were largely toothless given they had no legal powers.

The move to unitary authorities

The ‘No’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum was followed by 18 consecutive years of Conservative party government without a plurality of support in Scotland. Scotland’s opposition parties and civic society became preoccupied with legislative devolution, and a curious side-effect of this focus was the remarkable agreement between Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats and the SNP that the creation of a Scottish assembly or parliament would justify the abolition of the two-tier system of local government. While the Scottish Conservatives were tempted to abolish large administrative / local government regions like Labour-dominated Strathclyde (covering over 40% of Scotland’s population) controlled by their opponents, they feared that creating unitary authorities would bolster the case for devolution, given Labour advocated unitary authorities as part of its proposals for devolution (to avoid charges of over-governing). Nevertheless, from 1991, Scottish Secretary Ian Lang and the party leadership in Scotland pressed ahead with only perfunctory consultation. Meanwhile, opposition parties and a wide cross-section of Scottish opinion did not oppose unitary authorities in principle but saw little benefit in creating them in the absence of a devolved parliament.

Scotland’s present-day 32 unitary authorities came into being in 1996. Since then, there have been questions over the extent to which the rhetoric of gathering local services under one roof has been realised. The persistence of an unelected ‘surrogate’ second tier above the unitaries in the form of cooperation between local authorities, combined with low public awareness and understanding of local government structures, increases the remoteness of Scotland’s local state from its citizens.  The arrival of devolution in 1999, contrary to the expectations of many, has done little to improve the position. The introduction of proportional representation for council elections in 2003 has reduced the likelihood of any single party controlling a particular council, although it is debatable whether town hall coalitions and minority administrations represent a democratic ‘gain’, especially given persistently low turnouts. Post-‘credit-crunch’ cuts in local government budgets restrict the freedom of action of Scottish local authorities, notwithstanding the extent to which they make fiscal sense nationally. The Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 created a single national police and fire service from eight pre-existing police authorities, alongside consolidated crime and drugs enforcement regimes. The nineteenth-century practice of every town and village potentially having its own locally-accountable police force certainly represented an extreme concession to local self-government. But the pendulum has since swung too far towards over-centralisation at the expense of local democratic accountability and connections between local citizens and their governing institutions


There was never anything approaching a perfect system of local government in Scotland, with the possible exception of the 1975-96 two-tier set up, which would be obsolete in the devolved era today. Each of the different systems attempted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has had particular strengths and weaknesses in terms of democratic accountability and connectedness to local communities. Further changes look inevitable in the aftermath of the forthcoming independence referendum, whatever its result. Those tasked with  reconciling the best aspects of local self-government, community identity and civic voluntarism with mass democracy in reformed local government arrangements could do a lot worse than begin by re-evaluating the best and worst aspects of its complex and contested heritage.

There are several potential ways of achieving this. Reformers might consider reviving the old ward committees in a more transparent, deliberatively democratic and technologically advanced form. Or they might entrench the role of community councils, perhaps allied to citizens’ juries or representative minipublics and local referendums. Some localities may wish to have directly-elected provosts, akin to directly-elected mayors in England and elsewhere. Participatory municipal budget-setting pioneered by local citizens in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, has been emulated in cities worldwide, including Hamburg and Freiburg, where it has been combined with interactive technology. More fundamentally though, citizens in their local communities must be directly consulted about the ethos, constitutional status and design of local state institutions, whether as part of the constitutional design process for a newly-independent nation, or during any systematic rethinking of Scotland’s constitutional status in a reformed Union-state. 

One size, shape and number of local authority tiers need not fit all communities, though the precise structures adopted should, ideally, be locally determined. Bespoke arrangements are already being discussed for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Still more radically, serious consideration should be given to more clearly demarcating the powers, core funding and obligations of local government, entrenching these alongside local citizens' rights and responsibilities in constitutional law.  

This goes further than the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s recent, conservative findings of its Inquiry into the Flexibility and Autonomy of Local Government, which identify the main obstacle to further decentralisation as ‘internal cultural restrictions’ in local authorities , rather than the constitutional and institutional constraints within which they operate.  The committee also refused to endorse any increase in the number of local authorities or councillors, averring that increasing these mattered less than encouraging the better operation of those already extant.  Arguably,  greater plurality of local government institutions and elected officials would increase the opportunity for public scrutiny of, and interaction by citizens with, their local governments. Still, it is heartening that the report recognises that, whilst essential services such as education and social work need to be subject to central controls, local communities can design and commission other bespoke local services that they see fit. 

In a strange way, the inquiry’s reluctance to break up the existing 32 unitary authorities, and its refusal to restructure or micromanage these, echoes the Victorian respect for existing local state institutions, which could be a move in the right direction, albeit stopping short of constitutional entrenchment.  Entrenchment would mean legally guaranteeing the role and powers of local government in order to safeguard against central government encroachments.

It is debatable whether the inquiry’s call for ‘greater freedoms’ for local authorities and ‘minimum’ central controls is likely to be realised in the continuing absence of such a guarantee. After the referendum, bold decisions are still needed, so that a reformed and rejuvenated set of local state structures, incorporating the best aspects of past practise, can contribute towards revivifying Scottish local democracy for the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

Bort, E., McAlpine, R and Morgan, G. ‘The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland’, (Biggar: Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2012)

Gallacher, J., Gibb, K. and Mills, C., ‘Re-thinking Central-Local Government Relations in Scotland: Back to the Future?’ (Edinburgh: David Hume Institute Occasional Paper 70, January 2007).

McConnell, A., Scottish Local Government (Edinburgh: EUP, 2004)

Purdam, K., P.J., Greasley, S., and Norman, P., How many elected representatives does local government need? A review of evidence from Europe, University of Manchester: Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and

Survey Research (CCSR) Working Paper No.6 (2008), p.4; www.ccsr.ac.uk/publication/working/2008-06.pdf)

Prest, J. Liberty and Locality: Parliament, Permissive Legislation and Ratepayers’ Democracies in the Nineteenth Century, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990)

Pugh, M., ‘‘Centralisation has its draw backs as well as its advantages’: The Surrounding Burghs’ Resistance to Glasgow's Municipal Expansion, c. 1869–1912’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, [34:1] May 2014, pp. 40-66

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