Lesley Riddoch: Alarm bells at Sturgeon's '˜New Deal'

MASTERPLAN to bypass local authorities in favour of our communities is fatally flawed, writes Lesley Riddoch

Nicola Sturgeon has promised that parents to be able to choose a nursery or childminder that best suits their needs. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Nicola Sturgeon has promised that parents to be able to choose a nursery or childminder that best suits their needs. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Nicola Sturgeon has promised that parents to be able to choose a nursery or childminder that best suits their needs. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Brexit and the likely timing of a second independence referendum dominated media coverage of the SNP conference as expected.

But the best politicians are partly conjurers – and Nicola Sturgeon is no exception. Whilst attention was focused on matters constitutional, she appeared to announce the first major piece of privatisation in the short history of the Scottish Parliament. Her speech though transformed it into a piece of good news – the long overdue “childcare revolution”.

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Nicola Sturgeon promised to put power in the hands of parents, bypassing local authorities so that “parents will be able to choose a nursery or childminder that best suits their needs and, as long as the provider meets agreed standards, ask the local authority to fund it”. In future, parents will receive funding in a childcare account and use it to buy a nursery place directly.

The word “vouchers” must have gone off in 1,000 heads – but so little detail was given, so much other content packed in and so much goodwill generated for independence in the rest of Ms Sturgeon’s speech it seemed churlish to ponder over one discordant note.

Except that note has been sounding quite regularly of late.

Minutes later Ms Sturgeon promised “an independent, root and branch review” of the care system – presumably not destined to be a council-led process. On Friday, John Swinney hinted at a deal between central government and communities – bypassing councils once again.

“We want to re-invigorate local government by reconnecting it with communities. The principle of local control, not on behalf of a community, but by a community is key… Over the coming Parliament we will go further. We will review the roles and responsibilities of local authorities… We aim to achieve nothing less than to transform our democratic landscape, protect and renew public services and refresh the relationship between citizens, communities and councils. We do this not because it is radical – and it is – but because we believe it is right.”

If this “New Deal” for communities mirrors what’s happening in schools there is ample cause for concern. New cash for head teachers and parent councils to spend has been acquired by top-slicing council tax income – once more bypassing local authority control.

Surely those who’ve argued for more power at community level should be delighted? Surely all who have criticised our existing council structure as super-sized, superannuated, inflexible and bureaucratic must be singing hallelujah?

Actually no – for two big reasons.

First, transforming a system of local government must produce another system – not a patchwork of ad hoc arrangements between central government and unsupported and unelected individuals. Bypassing a faulty system doesn’t transform it.

Second, handing more power to “communities” and favoured citizens – however worthy – is liable to overwhelm volunteers and hand control to unelected gatekeepers and private firms like Serco, always ready and waiting to fill any democratic void.

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It’s fine to hand cash and control to community level – but these new democratic fruits must be carried in a structure for years and decades not weeks and months. In a democratic society that structure is called a local council.

The problem is not the idea of councils but their remoteness and massive size. In Scotland each serves an average population of 170k compared with a European average of 14k and a German average of 7k.

What’s really needed to “transform our democratic landscape” is a new tier of town, village and island councils – perhaps in addition to slimmed-down versions of the current regional sized authorities. In many European countries town-sized councils have volunteer councillors who get paid leave from employers like staff on jury duty. All are small enough to be the local community. Only in Scotland (and rUK) do politicians sustain this unhealthy division between super-sized council and organic community and bridge the gap with ad-hoc arrangements.

Truly “radical” reform of local democracy would create smaller, more dynamic councils with more income raised locally (partly from a new land tax).

Council tax and planning reform are already on the Scottish Parliament’s agenda – but will be considered as separate unrelated items. Why not consider the future of local government together and really reboot local communities instead of creating patchwork quilts of semi-voluntary provision? At the start of a five-year term of office, distant from elections, ambitious reform would find support from most opposition parties.

Of course, with childcare there is the question of cost. Experts say it’s almost impossible for a devolved government to finance a free, universal kindergarten system. At present, free childcare is allocated by councils in two-hour slots – it means more families get some help with childcare, but not enough to sustain a part-time job or full-time sanity. There are reports of children being moved between nurseries in the same day because of the complex and inflexible “two-hour slot” system.

Without more cash from somewhere, the same amount of funding will still only provide “free” childcare for a fraction of the time parents need it – but they will quietly and privately supplement it themselves, hoping the private services they buy are uniformly of the same high standard as council services. There is an alternative – the Scottish Government could truly copy the Nordic model and ask working parents to contribute towards childcare some of which may be provided by social enterprises, community groups, co-ops or private sector but is administered by genuinely local councils.

That’s not an overnight solution – but it’s high time the SNP started a national debate about how to fund high quality services instead of avoiding any mention of contribution lest it smacks of Johann Lamont’s much-pilloried “something for nothing” remarks. Every Nordic country demands a small contribution from working people for childcare. Surely that’s a model worth exploring to reap the massive benefits of inclusion that occurs when all children have an equal right to a high quality childhood? All the evidence suggests that doesn’t happen with a privatised voucher-type scheme.

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Of course there will be a consultation on the childcare proposal – but Ms Sturgeon clearly means business on all her plans to bypass councils and both centralise and atomise power as a result. Indeed, since Ruth Davidson says SNP plans on childcare and schools are actually Tory policies, she can be assured of Conservative backing in Holyrood.

Brexit and indyref2 aside – is this what SNP voters expect?