Leader comment: Resolution for reform

THE Scottish Government's bold plan to rationalise Scotland's eight police forces into one national service is to be welcomed.

The current arrangement dates from pre-devolutionary days when the eight forces mirrored the country's regional councils, which were abolished in 1996. So, while it is evident the immediate motive for this rationalisation is cost-cutting, it is in any case an overdue reform. To have eight separate police forces serving a population the size of Scotland's is indefensibly wasteful. The duplication and overlap among eight purchasing, IT and human resources departments is not affordable. Nor is it efficient. As with all radical reform plans, though, it requires caveats. The first is that this rationalisation must not degenerate into a takeover by Strathclyde of the smaller forces. Other forces in less urban and populous areas have their own specialisations developed over years of service to their communities. It is important those skills should not be dissipated when forces merge. Another requirement is to strike a balance between local political accountability, which must not be abandoned, and central direction from the Scottish Parliament and Scotland's justice minister. This will require a mature approach from all involved, and an awareness that turf wars would not be tolerated. There is a lot riding on this reform - not simply because policing is one of the major concerns of the Scottish public but because this ambitious idea could be the catalyst for a far wider rationalisation of public services that were designed to reflect conditions before devolution but which now are not fit for purpose.

With a parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland does not need 30 local authorities, expensively duplicating directors of education, social work and other services. It could be argued that our politicians have ducked this debate for too long, and that it has been unfairly overshadowed by the argument about Holyrood's tax powers. There is a constitutional debate to be had about sub-parliamentary powers as well as parliamentary powers. Since devolution in 1999, more attention should have been paid to a radical overhaul of Scotland's entire political and administrative infrastructure dating from the days of rule by Westminster and the London-appointed Scottish Secretary. Falling into this category is our system of health boards, which like the police are still largely organised on the old regional council boundaries. Police, councils, health boards - these institutions are now overdue for comprehensive reform. That modernisation programme may not have the dramatic appeal of the introduction of devolution itself, but it would be significant for the everyday lives of Scots and would chime with the notions of accountability that were the primary inspiration for the home rule movement.

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This is a practical example of Donald Dewar's dictum that devolution is a process, not an event. But these changes cannot be implemented in a piecemeal fashion, as a series of separate reforms. This should be looked at as one big and challenging reform of how Scotland is governed at a sub-parliamentary level. This is huge undertaking, requiring a great deal of discussion and planning. It would be short-sighted in the extreme to go ahead with one aspect without considering in full how it would fit in with other likely changes further down the line. For the politicians at the helm this will require vision, tenacity and patience. Which raises one obvious difficulty: timing. In our present straitened circumstances, ministers are looking for savings in the short term, not the medium or long term. They should realise that immediate savings may have to be sacrificed to long-term efficiency and accountability. This exciting innovation should be seen as an opportunity to refashion Scotland for the 21st century.