Dave Watson: The trouble with change is difficult and expensive

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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WHAT will local authorities do without public services to manage, asks Dave Watson

One of the obvious themes as you flick through the new Scottish Government’s plans is significant structural change to our public services.

It promises reviews of the structure of health boards and councils; new regional education bodies with more finance going directly to schools; and even proposals to allow community councils to run some services with 1% of council budgets devoted to community budgeting.

Structural change is notoriously difficult and expensive and wise governments want to focus on outcomes. While fewer health boards might work for acute services, it won’t for primary care. Health is already subject to the new integrated joint boards with social care, and these need time and greater financial clarity before taking on greater responsibility.

And if education and social work are going elsewhere, leisure and housing has already largely gone arms length, what will local authorities be left to do? Wither on the vine or merge - giving communities a less say in how their services are delivered.

I have used this column many times to document how public services are being savaged by austerity economics, and in Scotland, how this has largely been dumped on local government services. From 2013-14 to this year the Scottish Government budget rose 3.2% in real terms; while local government allocations fell by 1.9%. This year is disparity is even greater – 0.8% cut for the Scottish Government and a 4.5% cut for local government. Since the crash, a staggering 87% of the public sector job losses in Scotland have been in local government.

We also have demographic change that is increasing demand on local government services, particularly social care. Poor economic performance is also increasing demand as is the need for public services to respond to climate change. Not to mention the UK government grabbing £125m in additional NI contributions from Scottish councils.

The financial pressures are likely to get worse. There is about another £1.5bn of revenue cuts to come for Scotland in the current UK spending plans and very little use of devolved powers to mitigate those cuts.

The real shame is that the preventative work so lauded in the Christie Commission report of 5 years ago, which promised to transform Scotland is being abandoned.

The Christie Commission explained how deep seated inequalities underpinned much of Scotland’s long term problems. It called for services to be designed from the bottom up with greater user involvement. The report argued for preventative spending and a focus on outcomes. It also called for more integrated working, breaking down the silos and even going as far as looking at the ‘one public sector worker’ concept.

In my experience, the longer ministers of any party are in office, the stronger the temptation is to direct services from the centre, reinforced by the civil service culture.

I suggest some principles that we might consider in the debate to come.

Austerity may be the defining feature of public service delivery in Scotland, but we shouldn’t let austerity define the sort of Scotland that we want and we certainly should not roll over and accept austerity economics.

Public services play an important role in tackling inequality by mitigating the gross income inequality in the UK. We should recognise the value of proportionate universalism while targeting resources on preventative spending.

While centralisation is not the answer, that doesn’t mean that in a small country there isn’t a case for national frameworks. These could set out common standards, data sets and proportionate scrutiny. In particular, Unison has long argued the case for a national workforce framework that would include common staff governance standards, training and start to break down the silos and make it easier for staff to move between services.

• Dave Watson is the head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland