Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Time to Reform Local Govt?

Further to yesterday's post where I made reference to calls for reforming local government, this letter is in today's Courier:

Sir,—I refer to John D. Thomson’s letter in which he advocates re-forming the old regional author-ities. I spent my entire working life in local authority employment, from office junior to departmental head, and I completely agree with him.

Prior to the constitution of the regions in 1975, Scottish local government was in an unsustainable mess. With the institution of the regions, sanity was restored, despite the lingering parochialism which tacked on the district authorities, when it would have been much better for the regions to have been all-purpose.

When the regions were abandoned for political reasons and replaced with yet another plethora of under-sized authorities, all with their administrative superstructures, we were once again back to something resembling the pre-1975 situation.

Now we find authorities are having to look at sharing services, lending proof to the argument there are too many local authorities for each to be self-sustaining in the provision of at least some services.

This may not be the time for a complete reform of local government but, at the next opportunity, the regions should be restored as your correspondent suggests, with a suitable division of what was Strathclyde Regional Council, as it was too big and required so many empowered sub-regions as to make them almost separate authorities.

Yet, having said that, and without giving examples, Strathclyde provided services for some parts of the region which surpassed by miles what had passed for local government before that huge region took over.

Such local government reorganisation would require yet another upheaval and might well be accompanied by other reforms in numbers, function and qualification of councillors, the need for chief executives, and other areas which could stand investigation, but local government is still very important, despite the powers and reach of the Scottish Government.

It is, therefore, time that some body or other was set up to have a thorough look at the whole system.

The correspondent makes some interesting and valid points. There does seem to be an appetite for change in order to achieve economies of scale. There is merit in this argument, although I'm not convinced that the savings will be as much as some would predict.

Questioning the need for council Chief Executives is also something that has been raised before, as well as the the qualification of councillors. The latter particularly interests me.

As Convener of a department that includes housing, I decided to go back to university to learn more about it. I was surprised to find that I'm the first Councillor ever to do the housing course, and yet what I've learned so far has been extremely useful.

As Councillors are now salaried, there may well be a case for more qualifications/training or 'continuing personal development' for elected members. Though if that would be the case at local level, is there a need for this in members of national government?

Perhaps it is time to examine the role of local government. It would be a difficult and ambitious task no doubt, but the historically high levels of local authority funding are unlikely to return, so focussing solely on delivering core services and shedding a lot of the things that have gradually been 'bolted on' to councils by central government over the years might make sense.

Time will tell.

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