Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The challenge of the public sector

Very interesting report published by Sir John Arbuthnott investigating how money could be best spent across the Clyde Valley area. Currently the eight councils spend about £6.5 billion each year and are facing, like every other council in Scotland, severe pressures upon their budgetary commitments. He has suggested that there are many areas where it would be possible to combine services which are currently duplicated, saving money and providing best value for public expenditure.

Needless to say there has been quite a response already to his suggestions. Although he has not suggested that the eight councils should be combined politically, the dread spectre of 'Strathclyde' has been raised above the parapets, frightening all with talk of the mega-body to end all mega-bodies. There is also the inevitable worries about the impact combination would have upon jobs - afterall if jobs are currently being duplicated then any changes is likely to see redundencies.

The threat of job loss, particularly in the current economic climate, is a worrying one and everything must be done to make the process as smooth as possible. However, the reality is that we do currently have a bloated public sector in Scotland which sees public money wasted, reducing public confidence in local authorities and the work that they do.

The left of course have traditionally been the defenders of the public sector, and this is a crucial role that they must continue to fill as the possibility of a Conservative Government, largely inimical to the sector, looms on the horizon. However, defence of the public sector cannot just be a blind kneejerk reaction of refusal to countenance any change. All sectors must adapt and evolve, and the fact that there is so much money pumped into departments replicating work fails the electorate.

Combining services would allow costs for equipment and maintenence, particularly in areas which require large outlays in materials such as road repair. Furthermore joint work would help to standardise facilities across the area, which is especially relevant considering the fluid and constant interaction for work and leisure between Glasgow and its surrounding environs.

If the councils remained politically independent they would retain the ability to make the key decisions about the delivery of services in their area as they currently do - what would change would be a demonstration to the public that they are seeking to maximise the impact of every pound spent. In addition they would see benefits to their budgets due to the savings achieved, allowing them to save key local services from cuts, an outcome which is inevitable if things continue as they are.

There is much still to be explored about the proposals and it will be interesting to see the responses that come from the councils concerned. There will be some opposition to the measures, particularly in light of potential job cuts, so it is important that Trade Unions are involved in the process to allow discussion and debate. However, change is needed to keep local authorities working, and in bringing together the work that they do they will be able to save money and best serve the public.

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