Welcome to my Blog

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, 17 October 2018

Communities or regions?

Boundary change in local government is usually shunted into the 'too difficult' box, for good reasons. Local identity can get everyone excited. I painfully recall spending three days at Boundary Commission hearings while local historians made submissions on why the boundary was wrong and the proposed name even worse! In the current financial environment, boundary changes also invite a 'deckchairs on the Titanic' response.

The Scottish Government's current Local Governance Review is therefore understandably cautious. The first stage is looking at the less controversial issues of engagement, which will no doubt highlight the ways councils could do this better. The second stage is supposed to look at structures and powers, albeit in a voluntary encouragement manner, with the backstop of legislation in 2020.

There has been some interest in doing things differently. For example, Borders Council has suggested a merger with the health board, even if the council appears keener than the health board. They are at least largely coterminous, but placing acute services within the council has its challenges. Some years ago the island councils looked favorably on the idea of all-purpose authorities, but the idea was quietly dropped and never made it into the recent legislation. The Royal College of GPs has suggested shifting social care in the other direction, into health boards.

The Scottish Government is keen on the idea of regions, using Ayrshire has an example of a voluntary merger. While the three councils in my home county have undertaken some limited shared services, there are few signs that they want to go the whole hog. The government is rightly sensitive to the charge that they are centralising services, with regional education collaboratives just one recent example of this. While health board reorganisation has been parked for now, the language is increasingly about regional plans. COSLA, on the other hand, has consistently made the case for devolution to go further than Holyrood.

Where politicians fear to tread, academics can sometimes charge in. A recent example of this comes from two academics at the University of Sheffield. They argue that rationalising the number of councils is happening elsewhere in Europe, driven by economies of scale. The problem with this argument is that Scotland already has the most centralised local government in Europe.

They have redrawn the boundaries based on travel to work areas, calculated by using an algorithm - after all, it works for Amazon! This gives us 17 councils rather than the current 32.

This is all very entertaining, but as with any computer model, it depends on the assumptions. In particular, why are travel to work areas a sound basis for organising local services? I live in Troon and work in Glasgow. I cannot think of a single person in my town who thinks local services should be run from Glasgow. Co-operating on some strategic services like the railways perhaps, but libraries, bins etc. - I think not. I accept that there may be a stronger argument in relation to the leafy suburbs of our cities - but even I am not that brave!

The Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy, has made a strong case for towns to be the building block for local government. She is the founder of the Centre for Towns and sets out why the city region concept doesn't work for her community. She also makes some important links with austerity and disenchantment with the political process.

James Flynn draws on Labour's latest pitch for towns as another argument against city regions. He argues that devolution may be working for cities, but not for towns. He says:

"Bypassing an imposed mayor and instead boosting the power and responsibility of local councils seems more sensible. There is no logical argument to say your local council is a “distant elite” when it meets at the local town hall."
I have considerable sympathy for these views, which also apply to Scotland. In my paper for the Reid Foundation on public service reform, I outline the concept of community hubs, built around real communities, not the largely artificial council boundaries we have today.

None of this actually requires boundary changes, but it does require politicians to understand that Scotland is not our local. We may be a small country, but we have at least 100 diverse communities. That is where power needs to be devolved to, always allowing for cooperation on some strategic services. The way forward is to deliver services at the lowest practical level, in a way that best meets the needs of communities.

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