RECENTLY a report on local government in England indicated that huge savings could be made by merging local authorities.

In Scotland, the Accounts Commission Chair has advised Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee that social care and education have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and warned that councils will suffer “considerable additional costs and loss of income”.

The First Minister last week announced a review of adult social care (rather than all of the sector) which will include consideration of a Scottish National Care Service; this follows Labour’s consultation on the same issue which appeared in July of this year.

Local government, which runs or sponsors these services, was re-organised in 1974/5 and in 1995/6. The-post pandemic period will give politicians the opportunity to undertake a further re-organisation. Many local government officials have been expecting it for some years now, with rumours that there will be a reduction from the current 32 to around 14-6.

The usual refrain for such a move is that it will save money, bring economies of scale and will reduce needless duplication. However, would it be likely to lead to more “local” government, improve service provision or lead to more accountable politicians and senior officials? I think not.

Local government has descended into little more than a central government delivery unit for education and social work, both of which were “regional” services prior to 1996 (together with roads, some planning functions and trading standards). Councils spend between around 65-75 per cent of their budgets on social work and education. And the inclination to trim the budgets of other services to feed these insatiable services is unrelenting.

Small, genuinely “local” authorities would in my opinion bring greater levels of accountability given both the relatively few politicians running each council and their most senior officials would be highly visible to the public. The tight budgets and the latter visibility issue would also reduce the likelihood of the appointment of irrelevant posts (for example in policy, communications, business improvement, transformation, commercialisation, the list is endless) which are now widespread and dominant forces in councils.

By removing social work and education and placing them back in the hands of the Scottish Government (Education Scotland already exists) and by rolling the roads services into the trunk roads contracts which were won by the private sector 20 years ago, genuinely local services could be delivered by new small but “agile” local authorities across Scotland.

Where cooperation on delivery is required on specific topics, the Government could legislate to ensure that it is done, particularly given the policy of community planning partnership working has been a conspicuous failure with the most tangible product being weighty tomes of policy drivel.

Some will argue that a model of many local authorities will result in lots of highly paid officials (now commonly known as executive leaders). This need not be the case.

Once the budgets from social work, education and roads (and a proportion of capital charges and the costs of administration) are removed even the largest new authority will be a modest spender, and as a consequence will need few senior officers, all of whom should be on very modest salaries and with any luck know something of what they are supposed to be delivering.

Hopefully when re-organisation occurs, the Government will look imaginatively across the panorama of public sector organisations and deliver truly accountable and responsible local government which may well look very different to those we have today.

Colin Clark, Inverness.