Keeping it local, says island councils

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Scotland’s three island local government authorities – Shetland Islands Council, Orkney Islands Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are investigating ways to combine public services in their areas to help keep services and jobs in the Isles.

Ross Martin, Policy Director from the Centre for Scottish Public Policy has visited each island group in recent weeks to deliver a progress report to elected members and senior officers of each Council, outlining the various models and options for shaping the public sector in the isles for the future.

The Centre for Scottish Public Policy has been commissioned by the three councils to capture local ideas, investigate alternative models of public service reform, contextualise related political issues and develop a unified strategy for the three island groups.

Mr Martin said that the three island groups have independently been developing ideas for closer ties between local public agencies for some time, but that with the current economic and political climate it was important for the three Councils to work together on a unified strategy to retain autonomy and avoid being ‘grouped together’ by central government.

He added: “What we are looking at is a framework which recognises the talent pools in each island area and how each can best be tapped into for the benefit of their local communities. It is expected that each island group would pursue its own particular path within the overall framework and demonstrate their common desire to drive service improvement through efficiency and reform”.

In Orkney, Community Planning partners also attended the briefing. Convener of Orkney Islands Council Stephen Hagan is eager to see Orkney show the Scottish Government how it can be done.

Councillor Hagan said: “At the moment Orkney has its own Council and Health Board. There is a strong desire in Orkney for the county to expand on the work already done on joined-up services for example through Orkney Health and Care, or the ‘one stop shop’ for business development run by OIC and HIE Orkney in the Queen Street building.

“We think a ‘Single Public Service’ would work well in Orkney, saving money and protecting jobs that could be lost if, for instance, the health board and/or the Council were merged with others on the Mainland. But more importantly we believe it would lead to better coordinated and higher quality services for the community.

“We also believe there would be great merit in having Single Public Service in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. It’s entirely in keeping with the culture of self sufficiency in our islands. In our view this would work better than, for instance, merging OIC with Highland Council or NHS Orkney with NHS Grampian. While there could be a reduction in senior management – saving money - it would also ensure that other jobs within the two organisations remain in the island communities.”

“We believe there is support for this across the political parties in Scotland and we plan to speak to individual parties about our ideas. We would be happy to see Orkney being used as a pilot for Single Public Services.”

Convener of Shetland Islands Council, Sandy Cluness, said: “We have quite a good track record of working together in the public sector here in Shetland. I think that as organisations serving the Shetland community, we realise that with the ongoing economic situation facing us all we will have a much better chance of maintaining service levels and keeping jobs in the isles if we develop a strong, efficient single public service. So I very much support this initiative.”

Councillor Angus Campbell, Leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “The Comhairle, together with our colleagues in Orkney and Shetland, has been developing proposals for Public Sector Reform - in the interests of efficiency, democratic accountability, and the retention of a viable Public Sector working in and for the Islands, a Public Sector which is so essential to our economic wellbeing. That also means the elimination of duplication within Local Government, and the Health, Further Education and Enterprise Sectors.

“We need to consider seriously whether there should be one overall locally accountable body leading for the Islands strategically and, at the same time, co-ordinating the delivery of “back room” services.

“At the very least all these possibilities need to be fully explored and discussed. Otherwise there is a very real risk that each element of the Public Sector in the Islands will have to endure damaging cuts on an annual basis, leading to continued reductions in services and, ultimately, jobs.

“These proposals should protect jobs and strengthen the local economy. The key to managing change will be to develop our own solutions, in partnership with the Scottish Government, so that we can meet the formidable challenges which we know are ahead.”