LOCAL government in Scotland is under the microscope.
The recession and budget cuts across the public sector have already forced all councils to reappraise their service priorities. As the referendum on independence approaches, the possibility of radical change takes consideration of the relationship between central and local government into a new era.
That is already happening. Next month, the eight area police forces and fire brigades will be replaced by a single body for each service. As the first major structural change since 1996 when the 32 single-tier authorities were established, this has not been achieved without concern about the loss of local accountability.
Today, Councillor David O'Neill, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), makes a powerful plea for greater empowerment of local authorities. Citing the examples of the Scottish Government prescribing maximum class sizes and ring-fencing money for particular programmes, he argues that centralisation channels money to policies that are locally irrelevant.
The effectiveness of councils in delivering the best outcomes for their areas depends on meeting particular local need. Scotland is a varied country but it is also a small country and there is a general expectation that levels of service provision should, allowing for geographical differences, be broadly similar. The local authorities' agreement with the SNP Government at Holyrood to freeze council tax and meet certain policy requirements has restricted room for manoeuvre, yet some councils have explored innovative ways to avoid even deeper cuts. Notably, those surrounding Glasgow have examined ways to share service delivery and merge backroom functions to achieve economies of scale.
This inevitably raises the questions of whether, despite the advantages of being highly attuned to the local issues, some councils are too small to function at optimum level. The Herald has consistently argued, on cost grounds, against a major restructuring of local government but supports more shared services. There are encouraging examples of the practical benefits, such as Stirling and Clackmannan's agreement to provide education and social services across both authorities.
Joint working between social work and health services is another important step towards preventing gaps in care.
One size cannot fit all in such a diverse country as Scotland. There is much food for thought in our Reshaping Scotland supplement today, which examines the varied challenges in providing public services in different parts of the country. While Councillor O'Neill argues that even the smallest councils should have greater powers, others put the case for city regions with additional clout. The strongest argument for further decentralisation is greater local accountability. That is worth striving for but the persistently low turnout of around 40% at council elections indicates a significant democratic deficit. Yet local authorities are vital in providing the services we all depend on. There is widespread support for the recommendations of the Christie Commission on how to improve delivery and there are examples of new approaches and good practice but the pace of technological as well as political change means that local government must also be prepared to adapt. It is essential the debate over how that should happen is not confined to local authorities.
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