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OPINION-THE FUTURE FOR SCOTLAND

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LOCAL GOVERNMENT in Scotland is at an important threshold and our performance over the next 18 months will determin...
LOCAL GOVERNMENT in Scotland is at an important threshold and our performance over the next 18 months will determine our future shape.

The chattering classes of government advisers, civil servants and academics hold the view that, after the 2003 local government and Scottish Parliament elections, legislation will be brought in to re-shape unitary councils to better match health board and local enterprise company boundaries. Between 20 and 25 units are suggested. This would eliminate competing democratic priorities across wider areas and create economies of scale to achieve greater efficiencies.

The cities would get back their suburbs, but in return there would be fewer, better-remunerated councillors along the lines suggested by the Kerley report. This would facilitate greater collaboration between health, economic development, further education and local government.

The argument cites the failure of local government to sort out the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and points to the steady transfer of public services to Scotland-wide quangos or private contractors. It is the 1990s structuralist and centralist model all over again and takes no account of the fact that best performance has been achieved through collaboration and innovation, and is not a function of size.

The alternative position is one of local democratic optimism. Local government has emerged from the deep mire of the 1996 reorganisation and become far more citizen-focused. Services are no longer organised around the old professional silos, unlike the Scottish Executive and its satellite quangos. Community planning has provided the mechanism to make all public services in a council area more accountable to their citizens.

Councils are talking to each other and partners about managing services jointly across localities. These alliances vary according to the service and geographic continuity is less important than a cultural affinity. Management structures are evolving organically, but with democratic accountability remaining with existing councils. Councils have developed these relationships on the back of community planning. Councils are networking far more, and innovation and best practice are being shared where it matters - with practitioners.

By putting its citizens first in making decisions, councils have tapped into a powerful force for change which challenges the control culture.

KEITH YATES

Chief executive, Stirling Council

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