THE local council is the form of government closest to people’s lives. It runs the schools, powers the streetlights, employs the social workers, collects the rubbish, keeps the streets tidy and cuts the grass in the parks.
It impacts on the way we live in dozens of ways, large and small. And according to a Holyrood committee of MSPs, it does all this with little concern about the public and with a depressing lack of imagination, dynamism and creative thinking.
The Scottish Parliament’s local government committee report makes disheartening reading. While it acknowledges that, in places, it is possible to find Scotland’s local authorities reacting to local wishes and local needs in an effective way, this phenomenon is apparently all too rare.
Instead, it is more common to find local authorities whose primary function seems to be the comfort and convenience of the council bureaucracy itself.
Perhaps the most alarming criticism in the report is the apparent inability of many senior council executives to cope with change. It is alarming because at a time of severe cuts in the amount of money available to local authorities, imagination and boldness are not only desirable, but also essential. What we need are managers who are able to retool the machinery of local government to deliver the best possible service with the best possible outcome for the public, within the funds available. According to MSPs, many of these managers are simply not up to this job.
What is the reason for this stasis? Are they in denial? Do they perhaps believe that things cannot really be as bad as all that, and that ministers cannot really be serious about the required level of cuts and reorganisation? Are they waiting for Scottish constitutional change and the changed priorities that might bring?
Scotland’s prevailing political ideology cannot be a help here. A belief that our public services must be delivered by public bodies and not the private sector has left us with monolithic local authorities where there has historically been little incentive to find efficiencies or savings, or innovative ways of delivering services to the public.
As anyone working in the private sector knows, becoming truly focused on the needs of customers and communities is a difficult and challenging business. It requires a constant examination of how a service is provided, with the most basic assumptions examined at every stage with a view to seeing how they can be improved. This way of working is now hard-wired into how people do business.
Scotland’s local authorities, according to the Holyrood report, have – generally speaking – failed to make this their primary function. The view of the committee that the needs and views of the general public are distressingly far down the average local authority’s list of priorities is perhaps one that the public might recognise. It is clear that much work needs to be done.
Abbotsford news is cause for celebration
GLIMPSED from a train on the East Coast rail line, Abbotsford House sits perfectly in the Borders countryside, its turrets and crowstep gables the ideal manifestation of Scottish baronial style.
It is said that Queen Victoria was so charmed by the house on her first visit to Scotland that she ordered the construction of Balmoral in the same fashion.
It is a gem, and the announcement that it will shortly reopen after a long process of renovation is very good news. It is an opportunity afresh to reacquaint ourselves with a true national treasure. But Abbotsford is more than just a fine construct of stone and mortar. Its every detail is imbued with the spirit of the man who made it his home, Sir Walter Scott. There can be few houses with literary connections where the visitor can get such a thorough and affecting feel for the life of a writer than Abbotsford, with its unrivalled collection of artefacts from Scott’s life.
The scale of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens never ceases to astonish visitors. “They built this for a writer?” is the sometimes incredulous question. And, indeed, it is said to be the world’s largest monument to a wordsmith of any description.
There is a reason for this. Scott was not only the pre-eminent novelist of his age, he was also a man who helped define the nature of Scotland and that definition endures.
Many of the characteristics of Scottishness we now take for granted as emblems of nationhood have Scott as their genesis, from the romantic Highland heroes of his fiction to the contemporary style of Highland dress.
The return of Abbotsford is a welcome cause for celebration.