Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

January 28, 2009

Local Government Restructuring?

The Herald has been trying to foster debate in Scotland about reducing the number of our local authorities from 32 to around 10. Stephen Maxwell in TFN is doubtful and argues that any potential restructuring must increase, not reduce, opportunities for local democracy and decision making.

Stephen Maxwell, TfN

The Herald has launched a major promotion of the case for a new restructuring of Scottish local government. It argues that a combination of factors, most recently the economic recession, is putting Scotland’s councils under extraordinary financial pressure. It sug- gests that by reducing Scotland’s current thirty two councils to ten major economies could be achieved and better services provided.

These proposals may have a lot to do with The Herald’s need to boost its circulation. Certainly the prominence given to the views of Glasgow and other west of Scot- land council leaders suggest that The Herald has its sights on its west of Scotland base. Some elements of its case, for example that local government restructuring could contribute to meeting the challenge of the recession, seem eccentric given the timescale and the costs of restructuring. In any case as part of its Concordat the Scottish Government has promised councils that further restructuring is not on its agenda.

However the proposals have sparked a debate, at least in the pages of The Herald, which is raising issues of importance to the voluntary sector.

Part of the Herald’s case is that existing councils have failed to exploit their scope for achieving efficiencies through inter- council partnerships, for example by joint purchasing of back office and support functions as proposed by Tom McCabe some years ago. The current Scottish Government has been promoting similar proposals under its hub initiative and hopes that its Futures Trust will advance joint capital procurement. So far progress on both appears to be slow. Some concern has been expressed in the voluntary sector that the hub might be extended to front line services as part of an unspoken council strategy for extending direct council provision.

Diversity of service provision. An important intervention came this weekend from Douglas Sinclair, former CE Fife Council and COSLA now chair of Consumer Focus Scotland. He argues for more council partnerships in back office procurement and service provision but also insists that councils’ commitment to person-centred services means that they should embrace greater diversity of service provision via the private sector and the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector would want to insist that the terms on which it can engage with the local service markets are critical to its ability to provide added value including person led provision.

Accountability. The discussion so far has barely referred to democratic accountability. It is hot very long -1996 -that the two- tier local government set up in 1975 was dismantled on the grounds that it was too bureaucratic and too distant from the voter. The Herald’s restructuring proposals appear to be a case of back to the future.

Scale and empowerment. Several of the Herald’s correspondents have criticised the paper’s proposals on the grounds that they would represent a massive centralisation of decision taking at the cost of local power. They have cited France, Norway and Switzerland as countries which have successfully decentralised services including some health and education provision to local and community level. SCVO has of course argued for greater community empowerment as part of a wider national empowerment agenda. Should the voluntary sector’s voice be heard in this debate?

A possible position – while there may be scope for more joint back office and infrastructure procurement and shared management of service provision this should not be at the expense of public accountability. The potential for improving local government services through greater diversity of provision has not yet been fully exploited. The terms on which voluntary organisations are able to engage in service markets is more important in determining the quality of the services than the scale of councils. On general democratic grounds a general move towards larger council areas should be resisted. In- creasing councils’ fiscal powers should take priority over restructuring. Any restructuring that takes place should include giving local communities more opportunity to take their own decisions.