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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Better regulation?

 The main provisions of the Regulatory Reform Bill are based on the false premise that regulation somehow damages growth.  Rather than improved regulation the proposed bill could damage good regulation.

Today I gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Economy Committee on the Bill. The Bill gives ministers powers to introduce national regulation systems and places a duty on listed regulators to exercise functions in a way that contributes to achieving sustainable economic growth. There are a range of environmental regulatory changes largely affecting SEPA and powers for ministers to interfere in local planning administration through a performance management framework. As a consequence the Bill can be seen as part of the centralising tendency of the current administration.

Nobody supports regulation for its own sake, but it is important to state the case for good regulation. Regulations don’t just protect the public from unscrupulous and dangerous practices they protect other businesses as well. Companies who don’t follow the rules can offer a cheaper and/or faster service. This makes it difficult for those who do the right thing to compete. Fly tippers can charge a lot less than those who pay to have their waste disposed of or recycled. This drives down profit margins and increases costs for taxpayers who have to pay to have streets cleaned.

The Scottish Government’s claims that it wants to make Scotland “healthier” and “safer and stronger”. Should this not be the focus for a Bill claiming to improve regulation? Scotland has the highest level of E-Coli infection in the world. Three people died in the last outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Edinburgh. Days are lost at work through accident or ill-health caused by poor food hygiene, substandard housing and accidents at work. All of these are a greater burden on our economy than adhering to regulations.

A key area of discussion this morning was the proposed duty on regulators to contribute towards achieving sustainable economic growth. This is ill defined and could confuse the role of regulators to keep us safe. It is also likely to encourage legal challenges that will be another burden on hard pressed staff. Even the threat of legal challenge could influence regulatory activity and big firms rather than small are likely to be the gainers.

The Scottish Government is also proposing to take major powers of direction that could further undermine local democracy. UNISON has on occasion been critical of local authorities for reinventing the wheel, when some strong guidance from CoSLA would have ensured greater consistency, without undermining genuine local responses. However, the solution to that difficulty is better coordination and best practice guidelines, rather than imposition from government.

However, the greatest interference in local democracy is undoubtably the proposals to link planning fees to performance. The irony of Scottish ministers promoting a Blairite top down performance management framework is remarkable. Have they learned nothing from the dismal failure of top down targets as a way of driving improved performance? Hospital waiting times anyone? All the evidence shows that other services suffer and staff are forced under pressure from above to game the system. For example, planning applications close to target date that could be dealt with by some discussion with applicant, will instead be rejected and have to be resubmitted. Target met, but everyone unhappy. System thinkers have been highlighting this for a decade or more.

The RTPI also reminds us that the needs of developers should not be paramount when they say, “It should be borne in mind that the customers of the planning system are not only those applying for planning permission. Any discussion on planning performance needs to recognise that planning is a public service that provides a service for society at large, as well as those who are directly engaged with it". 

Today we are also publishing the results of a survey of our members in planning departments. They set out the reality of huge pressures on the service caused staffing cuts. Overall, 87% believe the service provided to the public is being adversely affected. These are the issues the government should be focussing on. Parliament can give regulators more powers and duties, but if the staff are not there to enforce them they are meaningless. 

The primary purpose of regulation is to ensure that Scotland is a safe place to live and work. It is the job of our members to ensure that, not to juggle that role with an ill defined responsibility for economic growth. The key provisions of this Bill are simply unnecessary and reflect the increasing centralisation of powers away from democratic local government. 

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