I like Kenny Macaskill. Since his stint as SNP Treasurer, he has been popular across the party too as a hard worker and passionate speaker. As a lawyer, he had the appropriate background to become Justice Minister, a post he has held with some distinction. Except that, as time goes on, our ways seem to be parting. That, in itself, is of no great moment. But his recent initiatives are causing ever increasing alarm among people whose opinion I respect—and therefore need examination.
Let’s take, for example, corroboration. Scots Law requires that evidence given by a police officer must be backed up by evidence from (preferably) another police officer. In a review, Judge Lord Carloway, who carried out a review of Scots criminal law initiated by the Justice Minister last year, said this rule (ensuring all key evidence was backed by two sources) was archaic. But, in the broader opinion of the Senators of the College of Justice:
“removing the need for corroboration—unique to Scotland’s legal system—would lead to decreased confidence in the legal system and to lower conviction rates generally. The Scottish courts have on many occasions been grateful for the requirement of corroboration, which in our view provides a major safeguard against miscarriages of justice.”
Judges are also critical of proposed restructuring of both Procurator Fiscals and Sheriff Courts and nobody—other than Stephen House and Kenny—seems overjoyed that we have folded our eight police forces into the biggest in Europe. All of the latter seem more driven by economies of scale than any operational requirement. And that economy of scale is being increasingly shown (c.f. banks or utilities) to be detrimental to customers as organisations become ever more remote and indifferent. Kenny is developing a reputation for driving things through, especially if it involves more centralisation.
Last weekend, Scotland on Sunday reported that Kenny was asked at a recent police conference if it is right that Scotland should move to one police force but continue to have 32 local authorities and 14 health boards. He replied it was “not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life”. So unimaginative; just because you have a hammer, doesn’t mean each problem is a nail.
Despite vocal denials by spokespeople, such thinking is one fox that needs to be shot, and soon. Because the disconnect between the Scottish people and their elected representatives is bad and getting worse. And the last thing we need is bigger and more remote bureaucracies to exacerbate that further.
Now, I can well understand that this cat was untimely in being let out of the bag. The Scottish Government wants to focus on the 2014 referendum and not have major distractions like reorganisations of councils or health boards within that time horizon. But, as Lesley Riddoch pointed out in Monday’s Hootsmon, the system is broke and needs fixing, so we must devise a solution, although not Kenny’s “cookie-cutter”.
There are varying opinions around on this. Lesley’s plea for more local and responsive representation flies in the face of economy of scale. Others like Stuart Currie argue that, because shared services and other cost-saving joint ventures have not materialised among councils, we must consolidate and/or merge in order to have a hope of staying within a reducing budget with ballooning service demands.
The problem is there IS no one optimal size that can combine economy of scale with a good accessibility by and responsiveness to the public. Bizarrely, the answer seems to lie in the two-tier structure abandoned in 1996 when we shot the regions and kept the districts. Leave aside and gerrymandering by the Tories of the time, we should probably have done the opposite—kept the regions and shot the districts. But with a rider, which is the revival of burghs as responsible elected bodies. Here’s how it might work:
A) Introduce City Regions, based on travel-to-work and common culture with 40-70 members (about one per 15,000 voters) and paid well. There should be about six regions in all (one possibility: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Dumfries). These would be major organisations with large budgets around £4bn based on population, with a bureaucracy geared to handle big-business civic items, which should include:
- Ability to borrow from PWLB for capital projects
- Basic Council Tax fixed rate provides >50% of income
- Strategic and infrastructure Planning
- NHS and Social Work (if not integrated then tightly linked)
- Water and sewage (i.e. split up monolithic Scottish Water)
- Police, Fire and emergency services in general
- Education & Further Education (Vocational colleges)
- Benefits & Council Tax administration
- Transport (incl. Lighting, Roads & SPT equivalent)
- Culture, Sports and Leisure
- Cleansing & recycling
- Public housing repair & maintenance
- Trading Standards, Environmental Health & Safety
B) Re-introduce burghs, based on historic entities and appropriate new communities. There should be about two hundred in all—but each would be a minor organisations, with 5-7 unpaid councillors (c.f. USA), budgets in seven figures or less based on population and no bureaucracy beyond a town manager, admin assistance and a few officials handling:
- Ability to levy local surcharge on Basic Council Tax
- Limited ability to borrow or raise bonds
- Local Planning
- Economic development and tourism
- Landscape and countryside
- Public housing management
- Local infrastructure (street signs, trees, licensing)
- Traffic wardens
Note the entwined fiscal relationship between the two. Burghs should be lean machines, not much different to the pre-1976 burghs in size. They are tasked with looking after their communities. Regions provide major services such as cleansing on a contract basis—or with a private supplier if they so chose. Though Burghs would be allocated a significant portion of council tax levied, much of this would then transfer to the Region to pay for such services—if they so chose.
With only a half-dozen Regions handling all the major cost centres and roughly that number of directors running major departments, it is plausible that they would justify the kind of salaries they are pulling down. But, more importantly, while there would be some economies in general staff, senior management costs—the one area that has boomed disproportionately in recent years—should come down by more than 75% or something better than £20m alone. With a quarter the number of paid councillors, this would save the same again.
By having planning, housing, green spaces and jobs handled locally, many of people’s immediate concerns should be accessible in the same community. The really local councillors will be daily among the people they represent and motivated by improving their own community rather than money. The trade-off is that the big, costly items will be remote—but, given the present structure, outside of cities, they already are.
While a number of prominent politicians besides Kenny are keen to combine councils into larger units, that is counterproductive unless the truly local element is restored as people start talking and thinking of ‘their’ council. Andy Wightman—no stranger to campaigning for local rights across Scotland—presents a cogent series of arguments for council units of this size in his blog on Sunday.
Of particular interest are his tables, showing the contraction of local representation in Fife down the centuries and a comparison of how local government is elsewhere. In Europe, France has 1,150 times as many municipalities as us; Germany 360 times and in comparable-sized Norway, it is still 13 times as many. Adopting the scheme above would still only shift Scotland from worst to 13th in democratic accountability.
It’s sensible that we don’t change anything before 2014. But the present councils are a non-local neither-fish-nor-fowl gerrymandering hatched 20 years ago by Tories in the hope that some might land in their control. Kenny’s right there’s a problem to face but he and his minister colleagues should ca’ canny; folding 32 councils into fewer monoliths of faceless bureaucrats still won’t engage people—they’d be neither local or responsive by themselves. As the Christie Commission put it:
“we saw evidence which demonstrated that Scotland has the lowest number of local councils among European countries of similar population size, This suggests that it is the joining up of discrete service functions at a local level rather than the number of discrete council areas that is the key issue.”