Stuart Currie: Reform needed in the way councils size up

Schools could benefit from boundary switches to save services. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Schools could benefit from boundary switches to save services. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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One issue that is creating some noise at present is the number of local authorities in Scotland. Of course, maybe I need to declare an interest as a local councillor for the last six years as I would be affected by any changes or moves of boundaries.

Looking back, I was a bit surprised to discover that the current 32 local authorities in Scotland was a creation of Michael Forsyth and the last Tory government in 1995. Without wishing to sound too cynical, let’s just say that some of the boundaries seemed more to do with trying to create enclaves where the Tories might be in charge.

It is surprising that this Tory approach has survived so long and that it is still seen by some as the “gold standard”. Now that we have one police service and one fire service for Scotland then why have local authorities survived the winds of change?

It might be that no party wants to hack off its own supporters who happen to be councillors, but I believe that it’s difficult to see how long this can go on.

First of all, I should say that the number of councillors need not reduce so we can ensure the accountability with local wards continues. Also, it is worth pointing out that most councillors receive a salary of £16,254 per year so having less of them is not going to contribute too much to the public purse.

The big issue must be can we really afford 32 chief executives, directors of social work etc costing many millions per year? The size of local authorities varies from populations of 55,000 to 600,000. I take the view that there needs to be a discussion on the number of councils in Scotland.

Are we really saying that Ayrshire needs three councils? Or that there needs to be two Lanarkshire authorities? Often it’s a numbers game when working out boundaries, but we need to take a long hard look at the right number of councils for our country. Having only one or only a handful of councils for Scotland would be ludicrous, but arguing for the status quo is surely not that far behind in credulity?

Over the last few years it has been left to local authorities to look at shared services on a voluntary basis. However, politics has intervened time and time again with the reality that no serious changes have been delivered.

In my own authority of East Lothian, the Labour/Tory administration have all but abandoned sharing education services with Midlothian and with it in excess of £1 million per year in true efficiency savings that would have protected front-line services instead of the cuts now being visited upon our schools and elder care.

Research now suggests that 2009 levels of public sector funding will not be seen again until 2026. I know it will be controversial, but are we really saying that the boundaries created by the last Tory government in 1995 are the best solution, or is it time to grasp the nettle and look seriously at reform to make sense of boundaries but also free up millions to protect front-line local services?

I prefer the latter.

• Stuart Currie is the SNP councillor for Musselburgh East and Carberry and leader of the opposition on East Lothian Council, but writes here in a personal capacity.