The single islands authority challenge

​The Scottish Government’s plans for a National Care Service, which are now back on an Edinburgh drawing board, were opposed by pretty much everyone with a stake in the subject. In the case of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, there were particular reasons for scepticism.
Malcolm Burr: "The challenge is to show people that this is about truly local governance for all, not a council takeover"Malcolm Burr: "The challenge is to show people that this is about truly local governance for all, not a council takeover"
Malcolm Burr: "The challenge is to show people that this is about truly local governance for all, not a council takeover"

​First, it was going to remove one of the few remaining areas of accountability from an elected local authority with massive implications for staff and funding. Second, it was going to create another “board” in the islands which is the precise opposite of what the Comhairle is currently trying to achieve.

The resistance nationally led the incoming First Minister, Humza Yousaf, to announce a delay to legislation pending a review. The can has now been kicked into 2024 and maybe a lot further. The irony of Mr Yousaf, who initiated the process in his previous role as Health Secretary, putting it on hold because of the response it provoked tells its own story.

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Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, recalls: “The National Care Service Bill landed on Local Government without any warning, with little to say about financing it, or how it would help with workforce shortages, or about local choices. In essence, it was a national structure with a branch office in each Health Board area”.

It was a familiar pattern and as Mr Burr points out, opposition was so intense that “there was really no alternative but to think it through again”. A series of “review forums” are now being held by the Scottish Government around Scotland, though none is scheduled for the Western Isles. Mr Yousaf’s successor, Marie Todd, “seems willing to listen”.

Now the indications are that local authority staff will maintain that status along with their pay and conditions while councils will retain their legal responsibilities. “There remain the big questions”, says Mr Burr, “of where the resource is coming from and where the staff are coming from. And they are still talking about another set of boards, though you would now expect enhanced local government representation”.

It is the question of “another board” that cuts across the Comhairle’s primary, strategic objective which is to secure legislation which would create a Single Islands Authority, increase democratic accountability and make better use of the currently diminishing public funding available to the Western Isles.

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Orkney Islands Council shares the same ambition and the two authorities have worked closely together on proposals which are now being updated. There have been some positive indications that the Scottish Government is sympathetic to the concept but the route to turning sympathy into radical reform remains challenging.

The idea has had consistent support from the elected councillors in the Western Isles. As far as the wider public is concerned, Malcolm Burr acknowledges: “The challenge is to show people that this is about truly local governance for all community services, not just a council takeover”. Also, it is recognition that a population of 27,000 simply has too many organisations, too many chief executives, too many bureaucracies to support with increasingly scarce money.

He says: “The totality of the resource available to the Western Isles needs to be used strategically, to best effect and with public accountability. As the resource falls, it is being consumed by too many organisations. It really is as straightforward as that”.

The most obvious “merger” would be with the Western Isles NHS Board. On the mainland, the trend is likely to be towards fewer Health Boards covering bigger areas and reform along these lines is widely anticipated. The best way for the islands to stay outside that pattern could be by becoming part of a more comprehensive islands structure rather than a vast geographic one.

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Another critical area is housing and Malcolm Burr has no doubt: “Housing should be part of a Single Islands Authority and that is certainly the elected members’ view. In fact, I would put housing before health as a priority for bringing responsibility and accountability under one roof”.

Hebridean Housing Partnership, the islands’ social landlord, is a product of history from 20 years ago that might have worked out differently – as it did, for instance, in Orkney and Shetland. The legislation which enabled “housing stock transfers” was driven by local authorities which were suffering crippling levels of housing debt, particularly Glasgow. The Western Isles, in its own small way, faced the same problem. Other councils which didn’t feel that pressure retained their own housing stock.

Tenants in the Western Isles voted in 2006 to transfer to Hebridean Housing Partnership, encouraged by the prospect of more money for new-build and repairs. There has continued to be local authority involvement and in many respects the relationship has worked well. However, the argument about whether a separate social housing organisation is really necessary, once the debt issue was removed, has never gone away – and HHP is currently sitting with reserves of £40 million.

High profile cases like the Leverburgh housing controversy, and the divide between town and rural house building, have exacerbated the feeling that these are matters in which elected councillors should have a direct role in delivery as well as making policy. The Single Islands Authority ambitions have given focus to that debate since such a body which did not include housing would be a contradiction in terms.

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Are there any other functions which Malcolm Burr would like to see embraced within the envisaged SIA? He says: “I don’t think so. I would have said enterprise in the past but we have an excellent partnership with HIE locally. In fact it is a model of how these things should work in a small area like ours”.

While the fate of the Single Islands Authority concept will not be determined within the three island groups but in Edinburgh, public support clearly matters. It would be by far the furthest-reaching reform of public administration in the Western Isles for more than half a century and deserves a wider public debate than it has so far engendered. The core question is: “How many public bodies do 27,000 people really need?”.

The question of local authority funding is an inescapable part of the backdrop to such a debate. Over Scotland as a whole, councils have seen a steady process of attrition over the past decade or so and within that setting, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has fared particularly badly for reasons that seem entirely counter-intuitive.

Malcolm Burr explains: “The funding formula agreed between the Scottish Government and COSLA favours areas of growing population. Why it’s so negative for us, I’ve never been entirely clear but population is the big one. There are other factors that don’t help us, like the falling number of school age children but most of it comes back to population. That is what makes us so dependent on the floor mechanism”.

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The “floor mechanism” essentially means that no matter how badly the formula is working against a council, there are funding levels below which it cannot fall. To that extent, more prosperous Scottish councils subsidise poorer ones and don’t like doing so, particularly at times when the overall pot of money to be shared is itself shrinking

For years, this uneasy compromise has locked Comhairle nan Eilean Siar into a very uncomfortable place – with the money available to provide services falling year after year, but not by as much as if there was no “floor mechanism”. Mr Yousaf has promised a long-awaited review of council funding and it cannot come soon enough for the Western Isles.

Malcolm Burr recently told a Holyrood committee that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has suffered the biggest pro rata funding cut of any Scottish local authority over the past decade – more than 15 per cent – and even “the sustainability of performing our statutory duties” is now under threat.

The logic of being punished for having a declining, ageing population is surely long overdue for challenge at Holyrood and not just, one might have thought, by the Comhairle. As long as it prevails however, the challenge for the council of providing the services people expect in every corner of the islands intensifies while the capacity to innovate has been virtually eliminated.

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If things are bad on money for services, they are even worse on capital spending. Malcolm Burr says: “The capital allocation is now so low that, in truth, we are on a care and maintenance basis for our roads and our other assets. The only commitment to major new building in the Western Isles is the Barra and Vatersay Community Campus and that is up in the air thanks to the plug being pulled on NHS funding”.

After 17 years at the Comhairle, Mr Burr is the longest-serving Chief Executive in Scottish local government and he has seen a transition from relatively good funding to the current state of affairs. He recalls that, back then, Scottish Executive funding split roughly three ways – a third for the NHS, a third for local government and a third for the rest. “I would guess now that the NHS is up in the forties and local government has suffered accordingly”.

At the same time as funding has reduced, statutory duties have increased. On the positive side, in order to make things happen, councils have had to work collaboratively with other organisations through initiatives like the Islands Deal and, in the case of the Stornoway Harbour Development, as provider of loan guarantees to the Port Authority.

They are also closely involved in planning for the renewables revolution which finally seems likely to hit the islands in a big way and in seeking to maximise community benefits in every form. This is after two decades of frustration in which, as Malcolm Burr recalls from meetings he attended, organisations like Ofgem and SSE held more power than the politicians. Now they seem to be preparing for action rather than preventing it from happening.

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The scale of what lies ahead will require a substantial public sector response – infrastructure, housing, health … which takes us back to the question which Comhairle nan Eilean Siar will continue to pursue: would a Single Islands Authority covering all these functions and accountable to the people who live and vote here, not make a lot more sense than a scatter of unelected boards?

Heading off a Western Isles Care Board would be a start but even that is by no means certain unless there really is a will to tear up the previous plans headlined “National Care Service” and start again.