Kenny MacAskill, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, has decided to open up the question of local government reorganisation when speaking at a policing conference last week. He said the move was “inevitable” following the merger of eight regional police forces and fire brigades into single national bodies.
In response to a question MacAskill replied: “These things are inevitable. Scotland has to address these things and we have to take wider stakeholders with us. Where the police are, where they have gone, I think some of my colleagues will look to learn from. The status quo is not tenable. It was not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government tried to cool the speculation: "Our approach to reforming Scotland's public services involves all relevant partners working across organisational boundaries to deliver services which best meet people's needs. This does not rely on wholesale structural reorganisation. It is about ensuring services are consistently well designed and delivered by the right people to the right people. We are in favour of closer service integration where this will improve outcomes for local people and ensure longer term financial sustainability.”
Translated, this appears to mean that while there will not be a formal reorganisation, structural change can happen by stealth. In a previous blog I have highlighted the growing tendency towards centralisation. Police, fire, care integration, better regulation and ring fenced funding are just a few examples.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) warned that structural reform was a “costly diversion” from providing better services. Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Fiddling with boundaries doesn't address the major challenges of climate change, demographic changes and big pockets of poverty. The SNP need to rule out mergers and centralisation and focus on the major challenges that Scotland faces."
As the Christie Commission and many others have pointed out Scotland is the least democratic country in Europe with the largest population per lowest tier of local government. Similar countries have far more councils including Norway (430), Finland (336) and Denmark (98). The Jimmy Reid Foundation report – The Silent Crisis: Failure and Revival in Local Democracy in Scotland – examines the impact this disparity has had on Scottish democracy and on voting turnout.
The Liberal Democrat’s Home and Community Rule Commission also covers these issues and like others they are suggesting a smaller tier of councils built around real communities. A less well known Christie Commission proposal was consideration of single purpose councils, something the islands have been looking at seriously.
Whatever your view of local government structures there is an urgent need to stand up for local democracy. Further centralisation should be resisted. UNISON Scotland is planning to open up this debate early next year with a consultation paper and a detailed study of the options. We will be encouraging the defence of strong local government before it is too late.