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Solace's visit to Edinburgh was a welcome one, says Keith Yates, but there were some sober moments ...
Solace's visit to Edinburgh was a welcome one, says Keith Yates, but there were some sober moments

Last time the annual Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers conference came north of the border, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and councils were still trusted to provide the majority of public services.

It is maybe going too far to say that these were halcyon days for local government, but certainly its reputation and self confidence have taken a nosedive since then. Edinburgh was a popular venue, a place transformed by devolution and the theme of diversity and innovation was well chosen. I was surprised that the balance of speakers was from outside local government such as think-tanks, entrepreneurs and agencies. But the real learning took place with colleagues in the informal networks that are at the fringe of any conference.

Given that most innovation occurs in the diverse laboratories that are our communities, why do we hanker for solutions from other sectors or government bodies which have little experience in public service delivery? Have we lost the confidence to believe in our own ability to redesign and deliver quality public services? And what are we doing to retain our best talent, which is often lost to central government and the other agencies? When the local government minister rightly demands service improvements from local government does he accept that the capacity to do this requires a loosening of the transactional culture which government has perpetuated?

With English local government facing the possibility of regional assemblies and unitary authorities, it might have been expected that we could share recent experiences in Scotland and Wales. Those still functioning at the 11th hour of the third night eventually heard the collected wisdom of Tam Dalyell MP, the father of the House. He magnanimously accepted that devolution in Scotland was here to stay, but warned there were real lessons for regional assemblies in England. They would d raw up power from local government, further destroy the parity of esteem between local and central government, create even more regional bodies to deliver regional priorities, produce a proliferation of policy initiatives, and create an over-elaborate inspection regime - though whether there is any scope left in this for England is a moot point.

He argued that local initiative and creativity was stifled by the legislation associated with devolution and that local government was spending too little time on scrutiny and sharing its best practice with others. Public services had to be accountable and this was not helped by parallel systems of accountability. Instead of local government acting as a bulwark against over-centralisation, it had become a puppet.

It was a challenging after dinner speech delivered in a true parliamentary style but, and it may have been the whisky, it had a disturbing resonance. Particularly when he reminded us that many of Baroness Thatcher's designs on councils had been thwarted by a strong and confident local government. And he also reminded us that Edinburgh's reputation for genteel hypocrisy was still flickering - the conference dinner at the Edinburgh Corn Exchange was in fact the former abattoir.

Keith Yates

Chief executive, Stirling Council

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