Conference news CIPfA in Scotland

17 Mar 05
Public sector reform was a key theme at the CIPFA in Scotland conference held in Glasgow on March 10 11

18 March 2005

Public sector reform was a key theme at the CIPFA in Scotland conference held in Glasgow on March 10–11

Councils need a shake-up, says McCabe

Finance Minister Tom McCabe urged council leaders to back radical changes in the way public services are organised when he addressed the CIPFA in Scotland conference last week.

He hinted at reforms that could lead to changes in the geographical boundaries of some councils. That could mean fewer chief executives and more joined-up services involving councils, health boards and local enterprise companies.

While ruling out any large-scale reorganisation of local government, he said he was concerned that some areas were disadvantaged by the 'politically driven' council reorganisation of 1995.

'The more it seems to me that we can get some symmetry between health boards, local government and local enterprise companies, the more we can maximise our efforts to get a bigger return from the same investment,' he said in a question-and-answer session that followed his speech.

McCabe appealed to people in the public sector to 'think seriously about how we are delivering services and engage with me to find ways of delivering more joined-up services'.

He added: 'I want to encourage meaningful discussion about how we can be better organised to deliver top-quality services. My vision is to work with you to make sure that we have the right structures, skills and culture to ensure that the public sector in Scotland can continue to meet the needs of our citizens.'

During the closing session of the two-day conference, McCabe gave his strongest hint yet that a wide-ranging reform of public services is on the way. But it could take some years to achieve.

Speaking to Public Finance afterwards, the minister said he could not see any major changes taking place before 2007, the date of the next local government and Scottish Parliament elections.

McCabe said: 'We have got to look at how we can rationalise. I have simply never seen the case for 32 directors of education; I just simply do not see a case for 32 [local authority] chief executives in Scotland, particularly when there are chief executives of Lecs, chief executives of health boards – and there are only 5 million of us.'

Town halls told to take responsibility over tax

Local government must take more responsibility for its own actions and not 'pass the buck' to Whitehall when it comes to criticisms of the council tax, CIPFA's chief executive told delegates.

Steve Freer said that councils were right to resist capping and keep up the pressure on government for a shift in the balance of funding for local services. But often they were far too ready to pass the blame for local tax increases on to central government.

'Local government is at its best when it stands up and takes responsibility for both its spending and taxation proposals. Frankly, it is at its worst when it cops out and blames central government,' he said in a panel discussion on Scotland's Independent Review of Local Government Finance.

Freer, who was a member of England's Balance of Funding Review Group, advocated reform of the council tax and the introduction of either a local business rate or a local income tax, set locally but collected nationally by the Inland Revenue.

He questioned the approach of Tommy Sheridan, the former convener of the Scottish Socialist Party, who also spoke in the discussion.

Sheridan put the case for abolishing council tax and introducing a Scottish Service Tax, collected by the Inland Revenue but set nationally.

Freer said that such a model would be 'terribly bad for accountability, terribly bad for democracy and terribly bad for local government'.

Freer and Sheridan did agree, however, on the relocalisation of business rates.

But the other panel member – Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland – did not concur. He said that Scottish businesses already paid too much in non-domestic rates and that relocalisation was 'not acceptable'.

Solace chair wants more consultation on Gershon

Sir Peter Gershon's efficient government review has been a good example of how not to develop public policy, Douglas Sinclair, Scottish chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (Solace) told the conference.

He said stakeholder involvement had been more limited than for initiatives such as Best Value and community planning, which had involved a 'real engagement' with the former Scottish Office and Accounts Commission.

He added that decisions had already been reached and there would be difficulties over ideas such as a single local government payroll. 'There has not been enough consultation and dialogue.'

Sinclair's criticisms were firmly rejected by John Oughton, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce. He said Gershon had gathered the views of various stakeholder groups.

'I'm afraid I don't recognise some of what [Sinclair] said about a lack of stakeholder engagement. The good chief executives are engaging with us and are getting stuck in to help.'


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