Centralisation weakens democracy, argues local authorities president

coslaBy John Knox

Three cheers for COSLA. No it’s not a new brand of low-cost pasta or a caffeinated drink. It’s the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the umbrella organisation for Scotland’s 32 local councils. And, despite being made up of respectable councillors, it has thrown an exploding tomato into the election campaign.

Pat Watters, COSLA’s wise and gnarly president, has accused the four main parties of “offering the electorate little more than political junk food – options which are short-term, unsatisfying and leave a bad taste.” By contrast, Watters says the COSLA manifesto – entitled Positively Local – is the “healthy option, the salad and fruit alternative.”

What Watters is talking about is centralisation. He says plans for a central police force and fire brigade, for a central care service and for parts of the education system to be centralised are crazy. He says rejigging the structure of public services does not address the fundamental problems.

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His manifesto says Scotland is already one of the most centralised countries in Europe and it has led to resources being heavily weighted towards reactive care and crisis management, eg a concentration on hospitals instead of health and prisons rather than the fight against crime.

“Centralising control and decision-making may feel like taking action,” the manifesto says, “but it will lead to weaker democracy. It will take power out of the hands of individuals and communities and concentrate it at Holyrood or with distant and faceless bureaucracies.”

It calls for a new emphasis on “outcomes” rather than “inputs”. So less talk of police numbers and more on how to reduce and prevent crime. Less counting of teachers and more counting of pupils achieving good results. “We should be less focused on how quickly an ill person sees a consultant than on why so many people are becoming ill in the first place.”

The theme of the councils’ manifesto is the “integration” of local services. Health, education, employment, social care and crime are all intertwined, each has a knock-on effect on the other, especially at the community level. So it’s important that each department of government dovetails with the others – and that, say the councils, can only be done at a local level.

All of this is not what the four main parties want to hear, nor is it popular with the public, who tend to blame “the coouncil” when things go wrong. It’s not the councillors who are making the cuts, they are only implementing them. The total local government budget this year is £9 billion, down from £9.5bn last year and about a third of the overall Scottish budget. On top of that, a council tax freeze has been imposed by Holyrood and supported by all four main parties.

What councillors of all those parties are telling their overlords in Edinburgh is that their various plans for centralising services are “clumsy and disjointed” and will not yield the efficiencies claimed for them. They point out that there have been 20 major structural reforms of the public services in the UK since 1980 and none have been delivered on time and on cost.

Take, for example, the police reforms advocated by the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives. A single police force, they claim, will save £150m a year. But most of that can be achieved without any reorganisation, simply by cutting top salaries. And the cost of creating the new single force is estimated at £92m, probably an underestimate when you consider that local commanders will need to be appointed.

On police numbers, the councils say, recruiting more police officers – at the expense of backroom staff – simply means more officers doing clerical work and at greater expense.

All of this is not special pleading, says Watters, nor is it a call for local government to be left alone. “This is not about self interest or simple protection. I have always said that I would be prepared to hear any proposals for public sector reform as long as they can be evidenced and as long as they deliver community benefit. That is why our manifesto calls for a rational, mature debate on the process of public sector reform in Scotland.”

The manifesto sets out six principles for reform: changes should lead to better outcomes, they should be integrated, they should improve local democracy, strengthen communities, they should favour early intervention over late reaction and citizens should have a clearer view of their rights and responsibilities.

Devolution, it seems to me, has got stuck in the sluice gates at Holyrood and COSLA’s Positively Local campaign is trying to build up enough pressure to flush it through. There are plenty of options for further devolution. I would give councils charge of the NHS, enterprise, water, higher and further education, environmental protection and tourism. All of which could be achieved without a major reorganisation of local government but by the long-promised bonfire of the quangos.

But getting the parties in Edinburgh to loosen their grip on the levers of power is not going to be easy. Judging by their promises so far, it looks like they are still addicted to junk food and won’t be taking the salad and fruit option any time soon.

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