There was a time when you couldn’t get away from the phrase “joined-up thinking”. Sadly both the phrase and, more importantly, the joined-up way of working seem to have gone out of fashion.
As the scale of council cuts grows we are seeing fewer and fewer staff struggling to try to provide the same level of service with smaller and smaller budgets. More and more we see staff having to focus on their part of a task rather than the best way of achieving the best service for the citizen.
We have an ageing population and an aim for more people to live at home longer. Yet at the same time we have cut community centre opening hours, which often provide the socialising and other services which will help keep people fit, healthy and connected to their community.
For the want of a janitor in a community centre we are likely to see more people having to move to residential care, at enormous expense. We are focusing limited resources on those with highest needs, but at the expense of low-level support which prevents problems becoming acute.
We are facing an obesity crisis amongst our young people. But we are increasing the costs for voluntary groups to use council facilities in the evening, making it likely that they will either have to increase charges (excluding young people from poorer families) or meet less frequently, or for a shorter period.
The SNP/Labour council seems to be going down the route of introducing individual charges on top of the council tax for a range of services. It started with the brown bins. Who knows what will be next? But that simply means that wealthy citizens will be able to get more and better services than those experiencing poverty or low incomes. Does the council really want to provide services for the few, not the many?
Of course, the brown bin tax is likely to lead to other costs, such as increased fly-tipping or additional landfill tax, as people I am sure will put recyclable garden waste into their grey landfill bin. The council is already failing to meet its recycling targets. Making people pay to recycle is hardly going to help.
But the lack of joined-up thinking isn’t confined to the council. We all accept that utilities have to dig up the roads for essential repairs and maintenance.
But recently we had a situation with six separate major roadworks on the main route from the airport to the city centre including resurfacing of the road which was being used as the main diversion!
That’s quite apart from utilities which leave holes in the road for days on end with no-one working on them. There has to be a better way of co-ordinating work but it may well need legislation and meaningful penalties.
So as the council is about to begin its budget consultation, I hope it will begin to think beyond what per centage to cut from each department separately and start thinking in a joined-up way about how to do things differently and more effectively by thinking across departments and working closely with other partners in the voluntary sector, rather than trying to do the same things with fewer resources.
There is a huge job to move towards preventing problems rather than simply dealing with problems after they have arisen. That needs imagination. It needs a move away from “I haven’t got a budget for that. It’s another department’s responsibility” to how can we best make this happen.
Robert Aldridge is leader of the Lib Dem group at Edinburgh City Council