The main public bodies which run services in the Outer Hebrides could be combined into a ‘Single Island Authority’ under a plan being brought forward for discussion by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Councillors agreed to pursue the idea after it was recommended in a report by Comhairle Chief Executive Malcolm Burr to a recent meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee.
Mr Burr had asked members to “approve in principle a Single Island Authority model of local governance as the basis for further discussion with communities, Community Planning partners and government”.
Discussions will now be held over the coming months with other partners, including NHS Western Isles.
As well as agreeing the principle, councillors also agreed a proposed model, which would have elected members at the top. Below that would be specific boards or committee.
Mr Burr’s report suggested Health and Social Care, Education and Children Services, Innovation and Enterprise, Regulatory Services and Infrastructure and Assets.
Speaking at the committee meeting, Mr Burr has described this as a “starting position for discussion” and stressed it was not a “fait accompli”.
However, he also said “the whole river of public policy is flowing in this direction” and cited several pieces of research and legislation.
He referred to the Christie Commission, the Smith Commission and the Islands Bill in particular.
The Christie Commission in 2011 said Scotland’s public services needed “urgent reform to face unprecedented challenges” and suggested radical change in how public services are delivered.
While the Smith Commission in 2014 was about devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, it also concluded that “different solutions were required for islands”.
The Islands Bill, also – though not yet finalised – will definitely be bringing in a requirement to ‘island proof’ all future legislation and policies.
It also helps set the stage for bespoke island solutions to governance.
The Community Empowerment Act 2015 is an important part of the landscape too — and the Comhairle recently approved its first participation request under the Act, from lobby group Families into Sport for Health (FiSH) to participate in the creation of a new strategy to improve Island residents’ physical activity, sport and health.
The whole process of local governance is currently being reviewed at Scottish Government level and there is also, in the background, an ongoing inquiry into NHS governance.
NHS Scotland has adopted a ‘Once for Scotland’ approach, which is about “sharing services” wherever possible.
As part of this drive to change the way the NHS works in Scotland, it will be looking to “reduce geographical and organisational barriers” to the delivery of services.
This is otherwise known as a move towards ‘regionalisation’ – or the possible merging of health boards. ‘Shared services’ are to be the way forward from 2020.
When he spoke to the Gazette after the meeting, Mr Burr acknowledged that the looming prospect of regionalisation – where NHS Western Isles could potentially be absorbed into a Highlands and Islands region – had been a factor in their thinking around trying to develop the concept of a Single Islands Authority.
Yes, there would be efficiencies if the council and the health board were to merge, he said – but he stressed this was about protecting services and the public sector in the islands, not cutting jobs.
He pointed out that jobs had already gone at the Comhairle due to budget cuts but there had been no compulsory redundancies.
He said the “pot is diminishing for all of us”, pointing out the Comhairle has seen an 18 per cent reduction in its revenue budgets in the last eight years plus a 15 per cent reduction in employee numbers.
If the Western Isles is successful in developing a Single Island Authority framework down the line, this could become a blueprint for public sector organisation in island communities.
Mr Burr said they had been thinking about this “for a long time” and so were ahead of the curve.
He said the Islands Bill – and before that work on the ‘Our Islands Our Future campaign, along with Shetland and Orkney councils – had been a significant step along the way.
“That’s why we’re at the forefront of all this,” he said. “There’s not a Cities Bill, there’s not a Rural Areas of Scotland Bill, there’s not a Large Towns Bill. There’s an Islands Bill and that’s because we’ve worked very hard on that.
“That has been a very significant step. Also there will be a National Islands Plan. People might say ‘big deal’ but plans have agreed outcomes, they have objectives, they have targets and you’re held accountable and governments are held accountable for how these plans are delivered.
“So these are not insignificant changes. If there’s one word that runs through it, it’s empowerment.”