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LGC IN PRACTICE

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Keith Yates, chief executive of Stirling Council, seeks more transparency. ...
Keith Yates, chief executive of Stirling Council, seeks more transparency.

The search for best value with a genuine citizen focus inevitably leads us to question the way our services overlap with those of public sector partners and government departments. It reinforces the belief that community planning at the local level is the overarching tool to develop appropriate and efficient public services.

We hope Scottish Executive ministers will accept that best value and community planning must be extended to other public agencies. But will this apply to central government departments or will 'Better quality service' reviews continue to operate within individual departments of government?

It is not evident central government departments are subject to the same cross-cutting scrutiny that occurs at the local level.

As we enter the next spending review, analysis of the Scottish block expenditure of£16bn a year makes interesting reading. From the first year of unitary councils in 1996-97 until the present year, there has been a 3.1% real increase in Scottish public expenditure.

There are some telling variations in this. In real terms, local government revenue expenditure has fallen by 6.1% and capital expenditure has fallen by 29.1%. Local government's share of the Scottish block has declined from 40% in 1996-97 to 36% in the next year. So who are the benefactors from reductions in local government expenditure?

It is no surprise the health service has received increases of 11.8%. More interesting is the growth in expenditure of central government departments and agencies, which has gone up 43.7%, although this does include the operation of the Scottish Parliament.

Audit Scotland expenditure went up by 54% and the water authorities - removed from local government in 1996-97 Ñ have had a 26% increase in expenditure. But this has required a 332% increase in water rates Ñ collected by councils, which receive much of the odium for these increases (on top of the 41% increase in council tax).

So when we are faced with complaints about the falling quality of services and lesser expenditure on things held dear by communities, should we, in the true spirit of transparency, point out where within the public expenditure block the resources have been going?

Debating these issues with central government has been hugely unsuccessful over the years and perhaps it is better in the public domain.

Now that the Cabinet Office acknowledges the government has screwed up local government by too many competing initiatives, a proliferation of plans and a general failure to appreciate realities at the local level (The role of local government at regional and local level, Cabinet Office Performance & Innovation Unit), should we not be asking 'What's the price of central government intervention at the local level and does it add any value?'

After all, when we develop or improve new services, as opposed to bidding to win back ringfenced budgets, we go to our colleagues in other councils to draw on their experience. As we have discovered from Hertfordshire CC and Newham LBC recently, there's an awful lot of good practice we can learn from.

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