THE large number of councils and health boards in Scotland is untenable and should be cut as pressure grows for a radical overhaul of public services, a Scottish Government cabinet minister has said.
Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, said the move was “inevitable” following the merger of eight regional police forces and fire brigades into single national bodies.
Speaking at the International Policing Conference in Edinburgh last week, MacAskill was asked by David Strang, chief constable of Lothian and Borders, if it was right that Scotland could move to one police force, but continue to have 32 local authorities and 15 health boards.
MacAskill replied: “These things are inevitable. Scotland has to address these things and we have to take wider stakeholders with us.
“Where the police are, where they have gone, I think some of my colleagues will look to learn from.
“The status quo is not tenable. It was not tenable in the police and it’s not going to be tenable in other forms of public life.”
MacAskill added, however, that “not everything has to be a single service” like the single Scottish police force.
His remarks raised concerns this weekend about potential jobs losses and massive disruption.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) warned that structural reform was a “costly diversion” from providing better services.
The future of Scotland’s councils and health boards is coming under increasing scrutiny at a time when public sector budgets are being slashed.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman last night said it was focused on “closer service integration” and looking at cross-boundary work as a way of saving money.
There have already been calls for a restructuring of the health service, which is currently made up of 14 regional health boards plus Health Improvement Scotland and a number of specialist boards – NHS Health Scotland, NHS National Waiting Times Centre, NHS 24, Scottish Ambulance Service, the State Hospitals Board for Scotland and NHS National Services Scotland.
Supporters of change say that reducing the number of health boards would reduce costs as well as strip away excess bureaucracy and duplication.
Lord Sutherland, who led a Royal Commission on long-term care, said that the system is “mad” and having 32 directors of social work is “daft” – even more so at times of economic hardship.
Senior police officers have also questioned why police forces were being merged while councils and health boards remained untouched.
Strang said he believed there could be advantages to police, health and council services sharing boundaries and populations.
Steve House, Scotland’s new chief constable, has announced there will be 14 regional divisions within the single force.
“My question was what was the government’s view on 32 local authorities and 14 health boards,” Strang said. “I’m interested in that whole wider public sector reform.
“I was just picking up on the logic from the government of saying eight [police and fire services] is duplication, it’s more efficient to go to one.
“One of the other arguments is disparity in size. There is disparity in size between local authorities, I would imagine that is something the government should look at.”
The Scottish Government expects to save £1.7 billion over 15 years from police and fire reform, while also freeing up resources for frontline services.
However, police leaders have questioned whether those targets are achievable, particularly in the short term, and Cosla warns structural reform of councils would prove costly and unnecessary. A spokesman said: “We’ve got to get away from this obsession about structures. It’s about outcomes for communities, not about structures. That’s the way forward.
“Our main concern is about delivering better for communities, it’s not about structural boundaries. Structural change is a costly diversion from the task at hand.
“Over the years it’s been shown not to work and costs far more than it’s ever been estimated to do.”
The Christie Commission, led by former STUC general secretary Campbell Christie, called for the break-up of the bureaucratic empires governing health and social care last year, following a nine-month review of public services.
NHS National Services Scotland said there are increasing examples of joined-up working with the health service.
A spokesman said: “Over the last few years, we have worked closer with our health board partners to deliver national and shared services that save money and help patient care. As budgets have become tighter, this has become increasingly important.”
“We are in favour of closer service integration where this will improve outcomes for local people and ensure longer term financial sustainability.”