BEFORE 2007, when a different government held sway across Scotland, something called “preventative spend” was the rage.
In a spending review where more money was available to the Scottish Parliament because of a growing UK economy, could taxpayers money be spent in better ways? Politicians find this impossible. If the overall budget is rising, then why take the political pain?
So it proved with emergency services control rooms. Police, fire, ambulance and coastguards all have centres receiving 999 emergency calls and then dispatching the appropriate blue light. In a road accident or a major fire it is highly likely that all the emergency services will attend. A victim may need cutting out of a damaged car, then need immediate medical attention and be whisked to hospital while the police keep the scene safe.
The previous Scottish Government considered having just three multi-agency control rooms across Scotland where emergency services would be co-ordinated. In principle, it made sense, but there were objections, some practical and fair. Others are more about a particular institutional empire.
Now as the Nationalist Government railroads a National Police and Fire Service through Parliament this issue is bound to re-emerge. But merging emergency control rooms will be a post-2014 policy. That is because political decisions that would cause a widespread storm are all postponed until after the referendum in 2014.
In many parts of Scotland real fears remain over Government centralisation. But therein lies an opportunity. Local police are to be accountable to local boards within the 32 local council areas across Scotland. Senior police are proposing not a local Police Board but a much wider Community Safety Group. This would gather people from across the emergency services including those with UK-wide responsibilities such as the Coastguard.
This makes sense. The issue is not simply police, ambulance or fire but how they collectively serve the local population. Real devolution of power and budget would allow such an approach to prosper as a broad approach was taken to tackle drug abuse or under-age driving. But devolution outside Edinburgh requires the natural tendencies of interfering ministers and civil servants to stop.
If an area wants to build a 24/7 call centre that responds to local needs that should be encouraged. The cuts being imposed on emergency services already mean civilian staff numbers have been slashed. Local police stations will close unless in the evenings unless a new approach is taken. But a joined-up emergency call centre locally based and locally responsive would deal with that. This approach would be as good for North Berwick or Maybole as Achnasheen or Stromness. This is an opportunity for central government to allow local innovation to flourish as new ways of delivering life saving emergency services are developed.
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland