I was speaking at our fringe meeting at the SNP conference today. The theme was public service reform. I set out the key recommendations of the Christie Commission and the Scottish Government's response, in the context of the major challenges facing Scotland's public services. I then focused on the implications for local government.
There is legitimate concern over the future of local government. Services are going away from local democratic control including police, fire and possibly social care. In addition we have services being transferred to a variety of trusts and other arms length organisations. Plus some privatisation initiatives. This has major implications for the remaining services and creates a confused pattern of service delivery. Unless action is taken we are heading for a 19th Century service delivery model that local government was established to sort out.
There is also a clamour for council mergers on the premise that economies of scale will be achieved. I questioned this premise. There is no evidence that larger councils are more efficient or more effective. They are also more remote from local communities. We should remember that Scotland has the smallest number of councils and councillors per head of population in Europe. Far from being over governed, our councils are already large by international standards.
So the position of local government is hardly secure. However, the reform agenda also has opportunities for local government. The key recommendation in the Christie Commission report is local integration of services through community planning. Councils have an opportunity to lead this process and become the leader of public services in each community. A less publicised Christie recommendation was the development of a 'single public authority' model. The island authorities are already seriously looking at this option and it could have wider application.
So local government needs to speak out strongly with politicians, staff and users making the case for strong democratically accountable councils. Projecting a new vision into the public service reform debate.