It’s become a familiar pattern in Scottish politics. The financial constraints imposed on Scottish spending by Westminster are sized up in broad terms at Holyrood, with similarly broad policy decisions being taken-5 and 10 year plans and the like. By the time it gets to Local Authorities the only decisions left are about what gets cut and where, with the guarantee that any difficult decisions (most of the ones that are outstanding at this point in the process) can incur the wrath of the electorate at a level as far from Holyrood as possible.
Whether it’s primary schools on the Isle of Bute, Drug and Alcohol services in Nairn or Community Justice in Cumbernauld, the process plays out all across the country in various guises. But what if, rather than Bute having to argue about funding needs with the mainland Argyll, Nairn battling it out with Inverness or Cumbernauld having to justify the perceived difference between it and, say, Wishaw, we were able to have local government which really did reflect local need?
Firstly we have to look at what we mean when we say local – that is, what makes one locality different from another? At the minute, when we look at a map, it seems like someone has taken a list of the 32 biggest towns and cities in Scotland and more or less said that these should be the site for local government, with their domains being drawn up by extending their influence as far as possible without stepping on the toes of another local area. The idea is that you need to have towns where power is centralised and that local government sees decisions taken at comparatively less distance from constituents.
Once upon a time this made quite a bit of sense-back in the distant past you didn’t have the money to build a castle within sight of everything you wanted to tax. Even in the more recent past it was easier for government to have central nodes where meetings took place and transport could be better arranged if participants had to meet in a particular place. Nowadays we have teleconferencing, and so the paradox of centralised local power really is redundant. Instead of seeing our local areas as being extended fiefdoms under the loose auspices of provincial towns we have an opportunity to re-imagine the way our government works at this level.
The way to do this is to think first of all in terms of the work local government does and the influences on that work across Scotland. National level politics in a country of 5.2 million can be fantastic when it takes account of the population’s needs and then formulates world-leading social initiatives where necessary in order to push us forward as a small, flexible group. Local government is where those decisions are played out though, and that happens by delivering those services. What’s the single most important factor in planning a service, any service, in Scotland? Geography.
While we have a small population with high standards of living we also face very distinct geographic challenges, each with characteristics which necessitate different approaches to planning, which are often conflated at the minute where local authorities either compartmentalise one geography or don’t take into account the presence of more than one geography. By my reckoning there are 4 separate geographies in Scotland we need to look at when we think about providing social services; Islands, Rural areas, Mixed localities and Urban areas.
Islands are the easiest to think about first of all because they show up most clearly on the map. We can consider islands in three main groups-the Northern Western Islands (basically the Outer Hebrides and the Inner ones north in a line from Fort William) the Southern Western Islands (any island not in the group I just mentioned), and the Orkney and Shetland islands. Before people point out that there are very big differences between these areas-ask yourself this, are they bigger than, for instance, the current layout of Argyll and Bute council which sees Jura’s needs met by an organisation based in Lochgilphead?
Urban Areas are pretty self-explanatory; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen. I’ll leave Inverness out for the minute for reasons that’ll become clear later on.
Mixed localities are places like Lanarkshire, Lothian and what’s currently North and East Ayrshire. Their defining characteristic is being populated by small towns whose primary industry has collapsed at some point in the past 60 years-having a brand new office park on the outskirts doesn’t remove you from this bracket. They have very real social problems, usually related to being relatively isolated and having had their industrial heart ripped out leaving a stagnant population. For those reading this exasperated by my not properly appreciating the cultural nuances which distinguish Wishaw from Carluke, wake up-there is no reason for North and South Lanarkshire to be different political areas, and less still for East and North Ayrshire to be. Think I’m wrong? Take a minute and think about what really differentiates the multitude of medium sized towns across these large expanses, in economic or social terms.
This brings us to Rural Areas, best thought of in contrast to the Mixed Localities. Take a train from Glasgow to Dumfries and you’ll see what I mean. Urban areas give way to mixed localities, ex-industrial towns peppering the landscape with high streets boarded up and a mix of 50s and 60s council housing being added to in some cases with modern day newbuilds, then after about Kirkconnell you get into rural areas. A town, a village even, becomes a notable landmark rather than an inconspicuous part of the backdrop. Rural areas are just that-low intensity population areas whose primary economic output is agricultural. Think the mainland parts of what’s currently Argyll and Bute, just about everything in Highland council, and a big sweep of the borders.
Many people reading this list will be confused by the obvious point that not one of these areas is geographically continuous. Is this really such a problem? You can get between Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen just fine by transport. In the islands you can make use of teleconferencing, and if this system were adopted you would see a disinvestment from the current centres of local political power, but with the possibility of them not being replaced by similarly unconnected centres. Why have power centres at all?
For people who are saying that the social challenges facing these areas are too different to be reconciled by this approach, I say you’re thinking about it wrongly. Scotland, the country, has a high rate of suicide – it’s been consistently higher than the UK average and more in line with what we see in the Nordic countries. Suicides involving handguns are consistently higher in the Highland council area. Substance misuse is a well-documented issue facing the country as a whole, and though it’s most visible in urban areas the rate of alcohol brief interventions in the Highlands and Islands wasn’t disproportionately lower than in Glasgow. Criminal Justice work in Dumfries and Galloway is unyieldingly different to that taking place in Edinburgh or Aberdeen. Or is it? People go to prison from one area but to a prison quite possibly in a different one.
The current system we have, with local governments split by historical power centres just muddies the waters. Choose Life, one of the most successful public health initiatives since devolution, is by almost any measure a shining beacon of policy and an example of how you can do great work in a small population with a bright team of people. Imagine, though, how much more could be done if rather than having to plan services across 32 local authorities we could interpret data and analyse it with the goal of providing on-the-ground services across the 4 geographies. Highland’s persistently high suicide rate involving handguns could be seen as the consequence of having a population living outside of towns (the smallest population centre usually considered in health planning) with ready access to guns and, it seems, a high level of alcohol use. A service aimed at reaching out to people who might be at risk of suicide here would have to be planned differently to one in the islands, even if it turns out that there are similar issues at play there. In the same way though, it might turn out that the model which works here can be rolled out with similar success in, for example, Newton Stewart.
If the promise of independence is a more determined progressive social politic, then local government as we know it just isn’t up to the task. It should be about the clear and efficient transmission of that politic, right now it’s a petty realm populated by egotists who justify their own organisation’s redundant existence on the basis of imperceptible identity.
J. Simon Jones