Cost-cutting - 'Test will be the impact on the front line'

IT is always worrying when the emergency services are forced to cut staff in order to save cash. Lothian and Borders Police and the fire service are now doing that with dire warnings ringing in their ears from Scottish unions that "cuts will cost lives".

Their proposals are inevitably only the opening salvo of a drawn-out battle that is bound to involve the merging of services, although locally that could mean simply sharing more backroom functions with other regions.

The key test has to be simply how the plans will impact on front-line services.

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Forcing officers to retire after 30 years is sensible despite being a personal blow to some officers. The reality is that most who want to stay on after that length of service are either relatively highly-paid or in comfortable office jobs, not officers working on the front line, and therefore are likely to have least impact on the efficiency of the service.

Offering bonuses to encourage career breaks could also create significant savings, but without any figure on the number of officers likely to go, it is impossible to judge the full impact of these steps on crime fighting.

The fire service would be right to close its kitchens despite the personal blow to firefighters. To be blunt, we can be sure that they will be as professional in their job with a cheese roll in their stomachs as with a hot stew. But the impact of a recruitment freeze and cutting back fire prevention visits are harder to gauge.

These opening move could be strong foundations for modernising services, but the real test is yet to come.

Rates wait

WITH the economy tottering on the precipice of a possible "double dip" recession, the last thing local firms need is an increase in their business rates.

Despite assurances that most companies wouldn't see a rise, more than 10,000 appeals have been lodged in the Lothians. That's one in three businesses - and some have seen their charges double.

Of course rateable values need to be revisited from time to time, but it is unacceptable that half of the appellants won't have their cases heard until at least 2012.

And if that process can't be speeded up, the Scottish Government must perform a U-turn on its refusal to offer the same transitional relief which is available to firms in England.