What with Harry Potter’s latest wheeze or Kate wowing the Canadians or News of the Screws screwing itself, it’s been an packed week in the normally slack ‘silly season’. Long gone from anyone’s radar is the Christie report, about which we’ve been banging on.
This is a shame. Not always known for their decisiveness, CoSLA has come out so strongly in support of Christie that they didn’t even want to wait for official government adoption of the report before starting to implement it. In their words:
“The Commission’s report concludes that nothing less than an urgent and sustained programme of reform embracing a new collaborative culture will allow Scotland to deal with a fiscal landscape where budgets will not return to 2010 levels for 16 years. In terms of a route map, this is a journey that local government is both willing and able to travel. We are pleased to see the link between circumstance and demand for services at last being recognised. For this reason we are also pleased that the report recommends more spend on prevention and that there is a real focus towards integration, decentralisation and localism. We also welcome the fact that he is not proposing reform in the abstract, he is very clear that all reform must meet his criteria and we look forward to working with the Government to ensure that this is the case.”
Little of Christie is new. It belongs to theories of local government predating the 1976 reorganisation that set up District Councils to be more locally responsive in matters like planning, culture or landscaping; dependent on local involvement to work properly. Sadly, what we got was Strathclyde—and what we have now is more like Strathclyde than any of the districts, let alone the now-defunct pre-1976 burghs.
It’s a shame there is little in CoSLA’s response to quibble with, especially as such harmony between them and a major government report is not the general rule. But what both seem to be blithely overlooking is whether an “integrated, decentralised and localised” system is achievable with the tools available. Most Scottish councils—especially those run by Labour pre-2007—are official-driven. That means all but the most general strategic policy decisions are taken by officers. Many pretend otherwise, but council meetings are boring, rubber-stamp affairs: actual debate as to what gets done how happens in non-public senior management team and departmental meetings. Almost all those attending those have been in local government all their careers.
We are supposed to believe that such people, used to cosy control for decades, are going to fling open their doors for amateur oiks to wage fragmented untidy causes all over their nice, tidy closed-shop budget decisions? I think not. Officials have spent the last thirty-five years bedding into the fabric of ‘big’ councils, where their writ now runs. Lip-service is paid to ‘control’ by councillors. But strategy, while cited, is barely understood, goal-setting and evaluation are unknown and council ‘spokespersons’ only vaguely aware of operational details, let alone where any bodies are buried.
People like Bill Jamieson can tub-thump about how the looming pensions squeeze in the public sector must be addressed properly. And they may be right: as a fiscal time-bomb, it could bankrupt the best-laid budget schemes o’ mice and men. But, even if such alligators were eliminated, we are still in a swamp. To expect the present management of councils to embrace and address Christie would not just be expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas; it would be expecting the medieval city states of Italy—cultured, stable and admired as they were—to undertake a space programme.