The Welsh Government seems to have got itself in hot water for treading where no other devolved administration has dared to tread—into the morass of local government reform. Given that England has been in a constant low-level turmoil for decades (Berwick-on-Tweed’s District Council is still grumping about being folded into a unitary Northumberland three years ago), the peace and quiet on this front in Scotland since 1996 has suited most of us associated with local government.
But that was before the recent savage reductions in monies going to councils set sundry spokespersons dutifully nodding that something radical was going to be necessary to make shrinking funds stretch to cover all the services the public required. After one year of austerity, pips aren’t squeaking yet—but, as there are at least four more years to go, they will soon.
The problem seems to be that, for fear of taking the kind of radical plunge Wales is considering (six to replace the present 22) Scotland is, at best, dabbling. This whole furore about a single police force is deckchair-rearrangment thinking if we don’t have a local structure into which it would sensibly fit. The recent Christie Commission pretty much tip-toed around the elephant in the room too and Ministers of all stripes have steered well clear of even broaching the possibility of change.
This would be tolerable if the present efforts at shared services either between councils or with other public bodies were developing robust alternatives. But with West Dunbartonshire baling from the Clyde Valley pilot and only a couple of tentative education projects (Stirling/Clacks; East/Mid-lothian) still in play, no serious dent in the projected £3.7bn council shortfall has yet been identified. The multiplicity of little bureaucratic worlds that passes for public services in Scotland: 32 councils, 8 police or fire boards, over a dozen health boards, a jumble of city region planning areas, transport authorities of uneven powers, etc. constitute a dog’s breakfast—whether created by a Tory gerrymander or not. The point is this: it ain’t fit for 21st © purpose.
So, do we take out all the councils and shoot ‘em? Well, yeah. Because what we really need is four city regions, plus two rural areas (N and S) to handle all the ‘big stuff’. Take every public service in those six areas—including health, police, fire, strategic planning, water and transport—and put them under a single, major elected body. Sole exceptions should be very local services like planning, business and civic cleansing/maintenance. These would come under reconstituted burghs in those communities that wanted local accountability. But these would be tiny councils (5 people) steering a town manager and handful of employees—all else would be contracted out.
Half the unaccountable nomenklatura of boards across Scotland would get their jotters at that same time that efficiencies of scale would be available in each region. Squeals that this would be disaster will come from SOLACE, CoSLA, Unison, EIS and the usual ‘aye been’ suspects. They’ve had 15 years to improve what’s in place now—yet did little but grow work forces and salaries. It’s time to meet their complacency head-on if we want all the services we now enjoy to still be delivered with £3.7bn less finance.
Both the Eagles and Shakespeare’s Henry VI were right in their homicidal urges; they just got their target wrong.