Scots FDs' vote dispels fears over single force reform

27 Jul 12
Scottish town hall chiefs debated the government's proposals for single police and rescue services.
By Keith Aitken  | 1 January 2012

Scottish town hall chiefs debated the government's proposals for single police and rescue services.
Scotland’s top local government executives have shrugged aside fears that merging eight regional police forces and eight fire & rescue services into single national organisations will undermine local accountability.

At a spirited dinner debate in Glasgow, organised by Public Finance, council chief executives and finance directors rejected by 20 votes to 16, the idea that accountability would suffer under the plans.

The Question Time-style debate, held in Glasgow, was chaired by Public Finance editor Mike Thatcher and sponsored by Threadneedle Investments. At present, both police and fire & rescue services are governed by joint boards, representing regional groupings of local authorities.  Based largely on the pre-1996 regional councils, these vary greatly in size, with the biggest unit, Strathclyde, covering about half of the Scottish population.

The Scottish National Party government at Holyrood, with support from both Labour and the Conservatives, wants to rationalise both services into single national administrations, while preserving local divisional structures.

Some critics see the reforms as a power grab by Holyrood at the expense of local government. Others, including CIPFA, have questioned whether such a fundamental restructuring would deliver the net financial savings ministers expect.

The proposals for single police and rescue services closely divided the panel of four guest speakers.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, believed reduced local accountability was inevitable: ‘If we move from a situation where we have police authorities that relate quite clearly to the existing local authority structure, to one where they relate instead to the devolved political structure, then clearly local accountability is going to decline.’

Curtice also saw the proposals as aggravating concerns that Holyrood was taking powers from local government and from Westminster. But he doubted whether many people believed these services were currently noticeably accountable. The most important issue, he suggested, was that ‘good firewalls’ were established to prevent ministerial meddling.

Author and social enterprise campaigner Antonia Swinson, by contrast, found ‘something deeply creepy’ about a national police force, although she supported consolidation of back-office functions and procurement.

But columnist and broadcaster Ruth Wishart, a member of the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services in Scotland, said she had been taken aback by the power chief constables appeared to wield under the present arrangements in terms of getting their own way on equipment, vehicles and specialist capabilities.

‘I don’t think we can avoid consolidation and rationalisation,’ Wishart said.  ‘Things can’t be left to chief constables to fight among themselves.’

David Martin, chief executive of Renfrewshire Council and the fourth panel member, agreed that joint boards were insufficiently accountable as they stood: ‘It works for efficiency reasons rather than governance reasons in most parts of Scotland.’

Martin did see ‘a risk of mission creep’ in the proposed reforms, but thought that  accountability could be best assured by giving local authorities a right to approve local policing plans as part of the community planning process.

Among the audience, there was little sense that the regional boards provided effective local accountability. Marjory Stewart, who chairs CIPFA’s directors of finance section, said: ‘What is important is that the local authorities continue to work with whoever is in charge at local level in the police.’
Elma Murray, chief executive of Ayrshire Council – which falls within the Strathclyde area – said that in her experience accountability was provided by sub-divisional commanders working with council officers. She was confident local government would ensure that continued to happen.

There was greater consensus against importing the English idea of directly elected police commissioners.  Wishart called the concept ‘madness’, while Curtice said that a falling out with London’s elected mayor had already claimed the career of one Metropolitan police commissioner. 

The evening also debated Scottish Government plans to merge health and social care, to promote preventative spend, and to continue to provide universal services such as free medical prescriptions and pensioners’ travel.

Martin thought it ‘too simplistic’ to expect that forcing health service and municipal functions together would guarantee synergies. These would only come from effective partnership working. ‘There are lots of examples across Scotland where people have a clarity about what they want to achieve,’ he said.

But Wishart retorted: ‘There are also some examples which are quite hopeless,’ and where cultural, territorial and procedural barriers were preventing best practice. These differences were hard to reconcile, but reconciled they must be.

‘Some of it is common sense.  It doesn’t have to be especially visionary but people have to be committed and the only way we’re going to get that commitment is if central government funding is made contingent on being committed,’ she said.

Swinson believed that the key to better outcomes was to put third sector organisations on an equal footing with local government provision, coupled with finding out what users of a service actually wanted from it. She cited an Edinburgh social enterprise that asked old people what they most wanted the care budget to be spent on. The answer was chiropody, which no one had prioritised. 

David Robertson, chief financial officer at Borders Council, noted that the police valued their relationship with social care, and asked whether ministers were wrong to focus on health service linkages.

But Curtice had a warning for his audience: ‘If you’re in local government and you wish to keep social care as part of your empire, you’d better make sure this partnership works because otherwise you won’t keep it in your empire for long.’

Wishart echoed the Christie Commission’s endorsement of preventative spend, noting that 40–45% of public budgets were spent on preventable illnesses. But she warned that preventative spend was neither a panacea nor a quick fix. This view was echoed by Paul Manning, executive director for finance and corporate resources at South Lanarkshire Council, who said: ‘This is not a vehicle via which you can cut budgets.’

Curtice further cautioned that the preventative approach was likely to prove an ill fit with competing political imperatives, such as the equality agenda.
There were sharp differences on universal free services. Swinson said that councils could not afford universal services, and that a better route was to revive notions of social equity. Curtice believed there was little in the local government remit that was susceptible to charging, and predicted that any move away from socialised provision might prove to be ‘political suicide’.

Wishart agreed that cost was a problem, but said means-testing was unpopular. Instead, she suggested, age eligibility or voluntary exclusion might work. Martin argued that universal need not imply free, and said that the £200m cost of universal concessionary travel was ‘crazy’. But it would be important to ensure that any money saved migrated to more important uses, he said.

Ronnie Hinds, chief executive of Fife Council, said it was important to distinguish between needs and entitlements, which made it easier to focus on priorities.

The consultation on the reforms has now ended with a report due soon. The Scottish Government will be glad that town hall chiefs have added their support to the proposals.

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