WORKING together could help local authorities ride out austerity storm, writes Pete Gregson
As winter draws nigh and austerity bites, councils everywhere are struggling to balance the books. Cuts are on the minds of local politicians and senior officers as they try to identify which services and projects will survive – and which cuts will keep voters happy.
Two weeks ago COSLA warned that councils across Scotland face a half billion pound squeeze next year, leading to “severe” reductions in services. Edinburgh council has major worries with 2000 staff facing the chop and community groups, play facilities, museums, libraries and even lollipop ladies being cut.
It may be possible, however, to avoid some or all of these cutbacks by sharing services with other councils – roads and education for example. If every council worked with its neighbours, huge sums could be saved through economies of scale.
Previously the (mostly Labour-run) regional councils, which were abolished in 1996 by a Tory government, managed areas such as education and transport. When the new unitary local authorities replaced them, instead of one director of education, we had four, and so on. Costs soon mushroomed.
Most councils in England adopted the shared services approach years ago. Scotland did not, and now has the highest number of public sector staff per head of population of any country in Europe. Some progress has admittedly been made: the 2011 Christie Commission pushed for public bodies to share services and the results so far have been Police Scotland and Creative Scotland among others. Last year saw East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire councils launch the Ayrshire Roads Alliance. But local authorities have mostly ducked the issue.
If Scottish councils won’t act, it may be that the Scottish Government needs to step in. Could this be an election issue for May 2016?
• Pete Gregson is founder of the Kids not Suits (www.kidsnotsuits.co.uk) campaign and a former council worker