The discussion on public service reform in Scotland quickly focuses on the number of councils, police boards etc. The argument goes that we have too many for a country of 5 million souls. This was repeated by the Independent Budget Review and others. While we do have a lot of different organisations delivering public services, do we really have too many councils?
If we take a wider European perspective the answer is clearly no. Scotland actually has the smallest number of councils per head of population in Europe. Similar size Scandinavian countries can have between three and six times more councils. Even in England, councils are on average nearly a third smaller. By the way, they have more councillors as well.
The big difference is that they don't have all the unelected quangos or other fragmented provision that we have in Scotland. Services are integrated at a local level under democratic control. Even services like policing that some in Scotland argue can only be run on a national basis.
The other big difference is finance. Across Europe local government raises much more of its finance for local services locally. In Scotland and across the UK councils are heavily reliant on national governments. Since the Council Tax freeze Scottish councils are now entirely reliant on national spending decisions. This also breaks the link between voting and paying for services. When you make that link issues like the so called 'postcode lottery' become less significant.
Finally, does any of this matter if the outcome is the same? While a direct causal link is difficult to establish, it is the case that countries with more decentralised local government achieve better outcomes for all their people. It is at least arguable that this is because they have a better focus on the needs of very local populations. Many of Scotland's councils are not 'local' at all, they are regions.
In the current public service reform debate there is a risk that we take a simplistic view of the structure of public services. The picture is more complex, but it is clear that a strong, democratically accountable local government is an important part of the solution. By European standards Scotland has a relatively weak local government structure.