In cutting my teeth on active politics twenty years ago, my unwitting mentor was John Macnair, a crusty, iconic businessman-cum-farmer, whom I had known for a long time because I had gone to school with his two sons. John stepped down as a Tory district councillor but kept an eye on his many local interests by remaining active on the community council, environment trust, etc, etc.
Having survived a stint on destroyers in WW2 and endless insults from Labour council administration over decades, he could be tough when he needed to. But he was neither narrow in nor stingy with the wisdom it had brought him. I was lucky enough to benefit from its depth. “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right” was one of John’s sage phrases that has stuck with me.
It sprang to mind again when I was handed the latest leaflet from my Labour opponent in Thursday’s election. Devoting the entire side of the leaflet to one of my blogs from last year, they pay me the great compliment of attacking what I wrote.
The Welsh Labour Administration had dared to break an unspoken political pact among parties not to discuss local government reorganisation. On the back of that, I had posited how that might be approached in Scotland. Labour here clearly doesn’t talk to its Welsh cousins but the leaflet ploughs ahead with: “This is typical of the crazy ideas that David Berry puts forward without thinking through the implications for local communities.”
Horseshit. My ideas are both thought-through and based on 13 years serving on single-tier councils. The Tories introduced them over vehement Labour protest in 1996. But Labour now seems to treasure them. Why? Beats me: no-one else does.
I won’t rehearse the arguments from last year’s blog but ask yourself: if you’re abroad in some exotic location far from home and are asked where you’re from, what do you say? If even one in twenty say “East Lothian” or whatever council area they live in, I would be stunned. A Belter will say “Tranent” or maybe “just outside Edinburgh”; most people will cite either their town/village or the nearest city.
No matter how well run and efficient, councils are unloved. This is because they are all too big for people to identify with. And, because they are run from faceless offices and depots miles away, they are foreign to whatever town/village each of us identifies with.
On the other hand, councils are too small for efficiency of scale. With 32 different roads depots or payroll departments and chief executives, jobsworths jealously guard their own patch/job/pension. Each new development in equipment or policy requires that wheel to be reinvented 32 times. After four years of effort, Scotland Excel (common purchasing agency) still handles only a fraction of council buying. You’d think the council umbrella organisation CoSLA might co-ordinate such things, but they are too passive for that.
Dividing Scotland into six city regions to manage the big public services would still allow for regional distinctiveness but with major economies of scale. A city region would have 50 or so councillors, each paid professional salary, and perhaps a provost comparable to the London Mayor. That’s 1/4 the number of salaried councillors we have now. Each would represent a quarter as many people as present MSPs do (around 16,000, vs 70,000) at a saving of around £20m.
Those six ‘big’ city-region councils would administer around half the current Scottish Government budget and would therefore be more readily seen as SG partners, having under their management:
- Health—all present NHS facilities, replacing inefficient/unaccountable health boards
- Police and Fire—a reasonable compromise rather than single national forces
- Water—Scottish Water has far too little public accountability as a public body
- Education—schools would remain devolved and unaffected but services centralised
- Social Work—would be refocussed on working with Health, private and third sector
- Transportation—not only economy of scale for roads but integrated public transport
- Environmental, Building, Cleansing, Recreation, Parks & Wildlife services, as required
The final ‘as required’ is important and the key balancing element in my argument that Labour’s leaflet ignored. If main public services were managed at city region level, a local element is essential. That element is the level of council universally missed since their abolition in 1976—burghs. They were at a scale people identified with (and still do); their councillors got nabbed in the street; the burgh surveyor got things done to avoid being nabbed himself.
But the structure of a 21st century burgh would be a different. Beyond a burgh manager, there would be few staff; some professionals and an office staff. Most services (e.g. bin collection) would be contracted with the city region (but free to be contracted elsewhere). Main burgh functions would be planning, housing and economic development.
The burgh council would be small (e.g five councillors) and unpaid. Apart from acting as a board for the burgh manager, their role would be to steer the future direction of their community. Where the burgh was large (as in a city) it could be divided into burghs, like London. Where the burgh is small, as in villages, they may wish to coalesce or be managed by a neighbouring burgh.
So, in this instance when the aim is so bad and the attack misses out the half of my thesis how people can best identify with their local government, being shot at by Labour is a compliment. They draw attention to the democratic deficit; they remind us that vibrant community spirit reduces demand on the ‘big’ services, making them less necessary.
But, rather than calling me crazy, I challenge East Lothian Labour to stop mumphing and contribute some real vision for our area: the poor one on their leaflet is either ‘me too’ or pretty lame. I quote:
- Safeguard local health facilities—high-priority but not a council function = no control
- Maintain local bus services—already done by the SNP but we’ll also integrate them
- Fairer local housing applications—Labour started the non-local policy; SNP fixed it
- More local job opportunities—SNP’s doing this with apprentices & tourism promos
- Devolved funds for local schools—Already done and funding maintained in recession
For decades Labour have recycled ideas from others but don’t seem to read them all the way through, let alone give proper credit. But, I have faith: they should keep shooting; someday they’ll eventually hit something other than their foot.