An article in today’s Sunday Times is highly critical of the present Scottish Government and its penchant for blaming Brexit and Westminster for Scotland’s sluggish economic performance. Is this fair? Compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland is falling behind in retail sales, so Brexit can’t be the sole reason. And, given increased fiscal responsibility devolved recently, Westminster’s share of responsibility for the vibrancy or otherwise of Scotland’s economic health has diminished.
So, after 12 years at the helm, is this SNP government developing and executing inspirational legislation that will make the prospect of independence synonymous with a bright and prosperous future that will showcase us (“in Jack McConnel’s sole ambitious utterance) as “the best small country in the world”? Any explanation, let alone remedy, will be complex. Rather than following the current political fashion of trashing opposing positions and those holding them, a series of blogs will attempt to follow the homely Ameican ex[ession “I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness” and suggest positive aternatives, starting with the basics at local level.
Aileen Campbell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government may have her work cut out. One of the least sexy Cabinet posts, it never commands the headlines the way Health or Education or Social Work can. Seeing that Scotland’s 32 councils are mostly run by amateurs, driven by either partisan party politics or a penchant for the quiet life and their CoSLA umbrella organisation sees itself as a councillors’ union, rather than a policy-making body and dynamism is a rarity.
Young as she still may be, Aileen has 12 years as an MSP and eight as a junior minister under her belt, so her elevation to Cabinet Secretary a year ago was no great surprise. As Minister for Children and Young People, she had steered the ambitious Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill through Parliament in 2014. It was virtually the last ambitious pieces of legislation that the present constipated Scottish Government has introduced. At the time, Aileen said “We want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up,” Laudable though the sentiment may be, four years later, the jury is still out. As half of her new brief is ‘Communitiies’, whereby the Government means to tackle poverty in Scotland, this can be seen as an extension of her earlier Children’s role. Last month in her new role, she claimed credit for passing the Fuel Poverty Bill, calling it “a massive step in tackling fuel poverty“. But is this strategic progress or populist tinkering?
The real elephant in the room and one on which all her predecessors since John Swinney have failed to make strategic progress since 2007 is local government structire. You may have noticed that major fiscal upheavals are being reported among English councils like Kent. Northamptonshire is facing a £70m budget shortfall and all are predicting swingeing cuts to services to balance the books. Scotland, on the other hand, has been eerily quiet on this. But that is about to change and Aileen will find herself holding a grenade from which her predecessors have, bu doing nothing, removed the pin. The scale of the problem is shown in the chart below detailing income to Scottish councils over the last five years.
Simply looking at the chart highlights the problem, even ignoring inflation and wage rises. Demand for care for the elderly is rising at 8%; social work and chidren’s service are rising by similar amounts. Inflation is running at 2.6%. Public emoloyees receive a 1% annual increase, with promotions and grade creep adding another 1%. In short, over the last five years, councils have been asked to so 4% more work with 4% less money. No wonder the pips are squeaking.
Aileen’s grenade lies in the fact that it is too late to tinker (although her predecessors did not even bother doing that). The only sensible solution is local government reform. This needs to come in four stages of enormity, depending on how much in the way of guts she can muster:
- Fiscal Reform. Only 20% of council income comes from Council Tax. If the proportion were reversed and 80% were raised locally (including rates) this would hugely improve local democratic accountability while inhibiting the massive amount of central interference in policy that renders councils little more than government go-fers.
- Shared Services. Each of the 32 councils operates their own world of inefficiencies. There is no need for each to have personnel, accounts, payroll, IT, roads, transport, etc. Joint Social Work, Education and other majot services, especiailly among smaller councils, should also be considered.
- Less Cosy Careers. Unison might have a fit but the secure jobs and pensions of council workers used to be compensation for modest salaries. That has changed, with Chief Executives earning serious six-figure sums and senior manager not far behind. Competition for jobs and jotters for the dead wood will bring private sector attitudes towards efficiencies and minimise the jobsworth paper-chase that dominates much council administration.
- Realise City Regions. The present council map was gerrymandered. Councils are too big to be local and too small to be efficient. Any objective observer would see Scotland as six regions, based around Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Dumfries. Each should run their own major council services, as well as police, fire, NHS and water. Within each, a series of revived burghs could run a truly local democracy with hew staff but key elements like planning and local business.
But even if Aileen were to find the cojones to break ranks and be this radical, would the Nicola’s current government which is displaying few ideas and pussy-footing around as if all it wants is a quiet life, would she find the necessary support for eben the least radical of the above stages?
Trouble is the debilitating emaciation that is happening to English councils from a grossly over-centralised government will be the inevitable fate of the Scottish councils who are showing no initiative themselves to either lobby the minister or come up with their own solution. It is loco government and it will harm local services across the country.
It would be unfair to expect Aileen to drive such radical policies through on her own. But the signs are that compliance with party unity and media-bite lip-service appears to play a greater a role in policy than any long-term vision of achieving a radically better future.