Martin Sime: Tide turning on council stranglehold

Martin Sime. Picture: Jane Barlow
Martin Sime. Picture: Jane Barlow
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AMID news of tensions in the relationship between councils and Holyrood, it is worth reflecting that Scottish Local Government doesn’t just have one big problem, it has several.

Its whole culture is defensive – protecting so-called local accountability, being against centralisation but always in favour of its own institutional and staff interests. The Local Government and Regeneration Committee’s latest report on public services reform says that many of the barriers to progress could be overcome by a change in attitudes and behaviours, and I couldn’t agree more.

It’s little wonder that local democracy is in such a mess with fewer than half the population bothering to vote. I bet that many people would struggle to name their councillor or even which party is in power in their area.

Local control, which few people will argue against, isn’t the same as being council run, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Sweden recently rationalised local government down to 260 units – a far cry from our 32 behemoths – giving towns and districts their own, much more accessible, authorities with powers over things that really matter to citizens.

Taking care as an example, it is difficult to see how councils add much local value to these types of personal public services. What really matters is that individuals get to make choices for themselves and to ­direct professional support towards ­meeting their needs. Rights-based approaches including self-directed support are increasingly popular and undermine council claims that they should run ­everything.

The Christie Commission recognised that the national discourse about public services is too often dominated by the wrong questions such as who should run the service and control the budget. There is an unhelpful tribalism, which runs counter to the need to get all public bodies thinking more clearly about how to treat their service users as individuals whose needs they actively try to understand and to meet.

Nowhere is this tribalism more evident than in council protection of its staff. This is excellent news if you are on the council payroll but it’s all too often achieved at the expense of those who work under contract, delivering exactly the same thing.

It is hard to see how this can be reconciled without a major reconfiguration of what local government is for and how it works. Representing local people and delivering public services are often in conflict, but which interest tends to prevail? Does local government exist to deliver and maintain ownership of services or to represent people? Commercial procurement of almost everything divorces councils from the very community-based organisations where democratic renewal and regeneration might actually come from.

The Local Government and Regeneration Committee concluded that 10 years of community planning partnerships have produced little evidence of major improvements in public services. The problem is that they are often disconnected from the people they serve.

You would think that localism was all about diversity, but one of the most persuasive arguments in favour of educational reform is that local authority run schools in Scotland are all the same. The race to the middle ground has left the system without momentum to drive change.

Confident public bodies give their power away. They support people and empower communities to make their own choices. There are positive exceptions where local government is embracing the expertise of the third sector in Scotland, but for too long now its major objective has been to acquire and hang on to power and resources. Protective municipalism might have been OK in the 1930s but it’s a serious handicap for Scotland today.

Of all the weaknesses in our current system of so-called local democracy, the lack of independent finance stands out. Reformed councils need to be made to raise the money they spend if they are to become truly accountable, rather than rely, as now, on the next layer up for the vast majority of their cash. Now where have I heard that argument before?

As self-directed support becomes the norm, the balance of power and control between councils and communities will shift dramatically. The role and purpose of local government will be under intense scrutiny and as the tide turns in favour of playing a more enabling role which takes into account the best interests of the people they represent, swimming against the tide won’t be an option any more. «

Martin Sime is chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations