Bill Jamieson: Let’s resolve to spend less in 2016

Wood from the Amazon rainforest was used  to replace decking on bridges for the Borders Railway. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Wood from the Amazon rainforest was used to replace decking on bridges for the Borders Railway. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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Ambitions abound for the news year, writes Bill Jamieson, but cutting costs is the only realistic one for the government

Some rituals from childhood are hard to forget. Today there is a time-honoured ritual. We start with a clean sheet of paper, the first day of the New Year boldly proclaimed at the top of the page and underneath, ferociously underlined, is the heading: New Year ­Resolutions.

A long and detailed list was thought essential: at least seven resolutions, ten even better and twelve a triumph. We would display them, confident that the list would last out the year.

What were we to know, in that glow of young innocence, of the wisdom of focus, of the dangers of over-ambition and the pain of failure, that the hard business of resolutions started, not with the compilation of a list but of putting that list into practice? How were we to know that a list of even three would struggle to survive a few weeks?

In government, lists of ambitious resolutions abound – grandiose objectives and strategies to achieve them. Focus is proclaimed but seldom in evidence. Today, it is the most elusive of virtues.

But there is one resolution today to which government at each and every level should commit. It is an old resolution but one more relevant and necessary today than ever: constraint in spending.

Barely a day passes without some glaring example of squandered resource and wasted money. Politicians chaff at the persistence of “austerity” but in central and local government there can be all too little sign of it.

We labour under huge levels of deficit and debt. But this is all too often shrugged off as some distant and external problem with no relevance to how we run the machinery of government or conduct our affairs. Recent weeks have brought evidence that at senior levels of the public sector there is little evidence that this is the reality at all.

Many of these instances are small and seemingly inconsequential. But their frequency and persistence testifies to a continuing cultural failure to bear down on waste. Examples include micro but costly changes to quango logo design and branding, and a city council plan to replace an underpass when three years ago it baulked at the cost of installing CCTV cameras.

Taxpayer Scotland recently cited changes to car park equipment in Perth and Kinross that has been damaged repeatedly at great cost of repair; of repeated complete carpet renewals for social housing in Dunbartonshire when tenants change over, and environmental cleansing teams who work to ancient shift arrangements that allow finishing at 11am followed by overtime rates starting at midday. There is a common theme in all of these – a failure, says Taxpayer Scotland, of local councils to reform their contracting methods on behalf of the taxpayers who pay for these services.

Arguably the biggest problem is the invisible evaporation of public money in duplicated or unnecessary service functions within local government – public bodies often requiring “go-between” functions between one agency and another. Staff rosters can remain inviolable for years due to union resistance. Justifications range from “transparency” – though the opposite is often the result – to the invocation of that divine mantra of bureaucracy: “Monitoring, assessing and evaluating”.

One council finding little difficulty in spending money despite its debts is Edinburgh. It is determined to push ahead with an extension to the tram project. Early estimates suggest completing the line would cost £145 million. Given the experience of tram work construction to date, Edinburgh residents could be forgiven for viewing any such figure at this stage with scepticism.

Then there is the financial state of the council itself. Like all other Scottish local authorities it is facing a budget squeeze. And previous tram work costs have made a big impact on the council’s balance sheet. The city has a debt pile of more than £1.5 billion. It has to meet some £118m a year in debt interest charges. Bizarrely it is now pondering a proposal to replace a subway beneath the busy Western Approach Road with a Toucan crossing and to install a new cycle and walking route, having delayed the installation of CCTV cameras on the grounds that these would be too costly.

This week brought revelations that tens of thousands of pounds of public money was spent on creating a new name for the quango Historic Scotland to Historic Environment Scotland. It gave a top Edinburgh creative agency £55,000 of taxpayers’ cash to come up with the new brand, an incredible £5,000 per extra letter. An extra £34,000 has been outlined for changes to logos on vans and signs.

A succession of meetings and reportedly “lively” discussions were held between the creative agency and quango board members as they discussed potential branding and straplines. And the Historic Scotland name will still exist as a “sub-brand” that will “nest within HES as the parent brand”. A fair allocation of management time on a one letter change to a logo while existing brand names are maintained?

Earlier this week came statistics showing how dozens of public sector bosses across Scotland are taking home six-figure salaries – with many making more than Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron. The highest earners include the Scottish Government’s top civil servant, permanent secretary Leslie Evans, on £160,000. Lena Wilson, chief executive of economic development quango Scottish Enterprise on £205,000, the Scottish Futures Trust chief executive Barry White makes £180,000.

Such salaries may or may not be justified as a means of attracting executive talent to Scotland. But while the administration persists on paying them it makes it all the more difficult to make the charge of “austerity” stick – and even more difficult to push through economies “down the line”.

Often it seems that public spending can run counter to government policies elsewhere. Take, for example, the decision to use wood from Amazon rainforest in South America replace decking on 12 bridges on the Borders Railway.

Yet Scotland is well endowed with various types of timber used for external construction. Was there really no local product that would have served just as well as a “sustainable” resource rather than opting to haul timber thousands of miles across the Atlantic? What is the point of the Scottish government setting a target of planting 100,000 hectares of new woodland by 2022 if the timber is not to be used for building projects of this type?

Finally in the past week has come a war of words over the use of taxpayer cash being spent on both sides of the independence debate on spin doctors to “market” their campaigns.

The UK government spends half a million pounds a year on its media team in Scotland – a fourfold increase in five years, while the SNP government spending on “public engagement” has reached almost £5m over a similar period. One way or another, the bills ends up with the taxpayer.

Enough, already! There can surely be no better aim in 2016 than to bear down on mis-spending and waste – a resolution that endures for all government and for all times.