One of the obvious themes as you flick through the new Scottish Government’s plans is significant structural change to our public services.
It promises reviews of the structure of health boards and councils; new regional education bodies with more finance going directly to schools; and even proposals to allow community councils to run some services with one per cent of council budgets devoted to community budgeting.
Structural change is notoriously difficult and expensive and wise governments want to focus on outcomes. While fewer health boards might work for acute services, it won’t for primary care. Health is already subject to the new integrated joint boards with social care, and these need time and financial clarity before taking on greater responsibility.
And if education and social work are going elsewhere, leisure and housing has already largely gone arms length, what will local authorities be left to do? Wither on the vine or merge – giving communities less say in how their services are delivered.
Public services are being savaged by austerity economics, and in Scotland this has largely been dumped on local government services. From 2013-14 to this year the Scottish Government budget rose 3.2 per cent in real terms; while local government allocations fell by 1.9 per cent. Since the crash, a staggering 87 per cent of the public sector job losses in Scotland have been in local government.
We also have demographic change that is increasing demand on local government services, particularly social care.
The financial pressures are likely to get worse. There is about another £1.5bn of revenue cuts to come for Scotland in the current UK spending plans and very little use of devolved powers to mitigate those cuts.
The real shame is that the preventative work so lauded in the Christie Commission report of five years ago, which promised to transform Scotland is being abandoned. The Commission explained how deep-seated inequalities underpinned much of Scotland’s long-term problems. It called for services to be designed from the bottom up with greater user involvement. The report argued for preventative spending, a focus on outcomes and integrated working.
While centralisation is not the answer, that doesn’t mean that in a small country there isn’t a case for national frameworks. In particular, Unison has long argued the case for a national workforce framework that would include common staff governance standards, training, and the beginning of breaking down of the silos, making it easier for staff to move between services.
• Dave Watson is the head of policy and public affairs at Unison Scotland