CONFUSION REIGNS IN OUR COMPLICATED NEW COUNCIL WORLD Scotland’s councils have lost their way as political fudges and bafflingly-titled departments undermine public confidence

The last decade has seen major changes in Scottish local government structures. The managerial gurus wanted lean and hungry organisations.  But Scotland’s councils face a crisis of public confidence.

Council Committees were once functional.  They related in a fairly simple manner to departments, Housing, Planning, Education, and so on.  Their purpose was clear.

Joe Public at least knew that if he had a problem with his council house, the department responsible would be the Housing Department and the relevant Committee would be the Housing Committee.  The officials of these departments were managers, bureaucrats even, but had practical expertise in the fields they directed.

There was also a degree of political clarity.  The first-past-the-post electoral system created largely Labour controlled councils and a smattering of SNP, Tory or Liberal councils in centralScotland.  There were a few independent councils elsewhere.

It was unfair and unrepresentative but who controlled what was almost always clear.  Hard decisions were taken.

The world of local government has changed. Glasgownow has 39 committees.  21 of these are Area Committees. Edinburghalso has five Neighbourhood Committees.  The multiplicity of Neighbourhood or Area Committees allows a far larger number of councillors  than was previously possible to be convenors.  Councillors hungry for status and salaries relish convenorships.

Area or neighbourhood Committees also give status to a cohort of local worthies in each community.  Their views are sought regularly, sought but ignored.

Beyond that such Committees are window dressing.  They give an appearance of consultation and democracy.  When major issues, such as schools closures, are on the agenda their essentially impotence becomes obvious.

Even worse, are the titles of the committees. Edinburghhas six functional committees, Children and Families, City Development, Corporate Services, Finance, Health and Social care and Services for Communities.

Glasgow has a range of committees including the Sustainability and the Environment Policy Development Committee and the Health and Well-being, Social Care and Equalities Policy Development Committee.

Does Joe Public have the faintest idea what functions were executed by such committees?  (Do the councillors who serve on them?)

It’s not just about titles.  The amalgamation of Education and Social Work departments and committees into Children and Families departments and committees is now seriously questioned.  The degree of on-the-ground cooperation has not significantly improved.  The management of, say, schools by officials who have little or no experience of schools, has not improved efficiency or effectiveness.

In both the major cities, the concept of cabinet government, of an executive Committee, has blossomed.  With that has disappeared the scrutiny, never perhaps as rigorous as might have been desired, by opposition members on a committee of the director, majority group and convenor of that committee.

Proportional representation has also changed the face of Scottish local government.  It’s certainly more fairly representative of the electorate than previously but the elected members haven’t come to terms with that.  In only Glasgow andNorth Lanarkshireis there clear single-party control.  In every other council coalitions with varying degree of coherence have been stitched together. In Angus a coalition of five Tory, three Liberal, two Labour and five Independent councillors narrowly outnumbers 13 SNPers and one Independent.  Such a coalition appears to be more about keeping the biggest party out of control rather than any common local ideals.

In Perth and Kinross, Fife and East Lothian, Liberal-SNP coalitions rule with some leeway over the other parties.  InAberdeena Liberal-SNP coalition holds 27 seats to the opposition’s 26.  The council seems beset by a running budget crisis.

In Edinburgh 17 Liberals and 12 SNP councillors hold control, with the Provost’s casting vote, against a combined opposition of 29. Such alliances are frequently shaky.

Edinburgh’s Liberal-SNP coalition sought to introduce a schools closure programme (originally planned by Labour prior to its losing control in 2007) of over 20 schools.  It managed ultimately, because of disagreements within the coalition, to close only four primaries.

A more recent proposal for further closures was trimmed before it even reached the floor of the council because one of the coalition partners would not wear the details.

It’s worth comparing this with Glasgow.  Under the previous single-party Labour administration (with its huge majority)Glasgowclosed nine secondaries, saving massive amounts.  Whether that was a good or a bad thing is debatable but there was no debate over political determination and rigorous action.

The Scottish Government’s concordat with central government was based on a freeze on council tax.  Inevitably councils had to tighten their belts.  One-and-a-half to two per cent ‘efficiency cuts’ were the order of the day.  These problems will appear minor compared to the financial cuts which are about to face councils in the aftermath of the international economic downturn.

It is estimated that of Edinburgh’s £250 million annual Children and Families budget, £17 million has to be cut in each of the next three years.

Only strong coalitions could agree and push through such packages.  Playing for short-term party advantage makes that an unlikely scenario.

The future for Scottish councils looks bleak.  They lack credibility with the electorate.  Their functions are poorly understood.  The language by which they describe themselves and the corporate models they have adopted add to that confusion and puzzlement.  In the face of major crises, they are frequently indecisive.

The 2007 council elections, with polling on the same day as the parliamentary elections, may have created some chaos.  They also created the highest turn-out for decades, frequently in excess of 60%.

The democratic surplus which should have resulted from such a turn-out and from election by proportional representation has been squandered.

Either Scotland’s municipal leaderships radically rethink tactics and strategies or popular cynicism will become the norm.  Turn-out below 25% will return.  Municipal legitimacy will be questioned.  With that could come a questioning of the right of local government to run major services.  There are already many for whom such a move would not be unwelcome.

 

 

Alex Wood is a former leader of Edinburgh District Council and a headteacher.

 

This article was first published in The Herald on 15 September 2009.

 

As a result of its publication I was faced with disciplinary action by the City of Edinburgh Council.  See A Rigid School of Thought.

 

 

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