Monday, May 24, 2010

Highland Council Cuts Blog - Lots of comment from the Nairn area

'Blog-questionaire risks missing the point and misdirecting the debate' says Nairnbairn

One comment asks how you can be in Inverness swimming pool in thirty minutes if you live in Auldearn. (good point and you'd need a fast car and a traffic free A96 to make it most days from Nairn anyway wouldn't you?). A message too on the Budget blog for Graham Marsden.

'1. some how i dont think if I were to go stand at the bus stop in auldearn 30mins later i would be in the pool in Inverness, however I could be in the Nairn swimming pool.Opps how did the council assess the time allowed to get to the pool ?

2. Will the council take the responibility of ensuring that children in auldearn have enough time to attend thier weekly swimming classes if they have to travel to Inverness and the extra cost of the transport ?Graham Marsden take heart that the 2,212 facebook users subscribed to the save the nairn swimming pool campain probably dont live in nain , possible can afforded to be ignored as they never comented on this blog and can certainly be overlooked because if they didnt bother signing up to the council forum they are unlikely to turn out at an local election!
Concerned Elector (ward 19)'

To see the rest of the comments so far have a look here. In connection with the cuts process in general Nairnbairn has made a stinging criticism of the whole strategy and I'm sure many Gurnites will second his/her motion. Here's what he/she has published on the cuts blog:

'This blog-questionnaire risks missing the point and misdirecting the debate. It is rather like the joke about the traveller who has lost his way and seeks help from a local bystander - who says "Well, to get there, I wouldn't start from here...."

By putting only selected questions or specific options about reduction/disposal of front-line services out for discussion, Councillor Alston has already shaped and restricted the debate. As others have pointed out, this technique risks provoking inter-communal strife ("our library is more important than your community centre or their respite home" ). It encourages special-pleading. It prompts the enthusiasts for any specific facility to press their case ("cut what you like, but don't touch our pool/museum/whatever" ). It implies that those who shout loudest or muster the greatest number of signatures/Facebook posts are likely to be most successful in saving "their" pet project. It invites, and plays on, sentiment and emotion ("of course we can't possibly reduce the services to children/old folks/the vulnerable/the disabled" ).

Effective budget management is about priorities and choices. This means making value-judgments. It is also a very tough challenge. It is simply not possible for everyone to have everything they want paid for from public (ie our, taxpayers) funds. So those elected and paid to manage our public services have to be prepared to make choices and justify them (and take the electoral consequences if they make the wrong calls). A consultation exercise is not a device for escaping from, or disguising, this basic responsibility.

Above all, however, budget management - especially when money is tight - is about efficiency. That does not mean closing facilities. Efficiency means doing more with less. Making the resources stretch further. Making processes, and management, leaner and meaner. Simplifying decision-making. Stripping out layers of hierarchy. Devolving and delegating. Integrating back-office functions and cutting overheads, rather than closing down front-line services.

All basic stuff. Yet so far, the consultation exercise (online and on paper) reveals little about whether, and how far, this kind of action is being taken.

A simple and necessary first step is to benchmark: to identify whether Highland Council spending (in any area) is better, worse, or the same, as other local/regional authorities, and to publish figures which show the trend of spending. The Council already publishes "league tables" of the level of council tax throughout Scotland (and Highland ranks in the middle of the pack). So, for example.... in education in the Highlands, publish figures which compare pupil:teacher:administrator ratios. For social and welfare work, list comparative figures for cases: case workers. For older people, those with special needs, those in care, show how the spending per head compares with other regional authorities. Does Highland have more needy/elderly/vulnerable people than average? Does it spend more or less on them, pro-rata, than other regions? If these reveal that the Highland Council is employing more people, or spending more money, to deliver the same, or fewer services to its people, then this is a clear pointer to where savings could be made and efficiency improved.

Only when there are publicly-available performance and expenditure figures and benchmarks is it possible to identify where the Highland Council might be spending proportionately more (or delivering less for its money) than other authorities. Where these disparities are revealed, the obvious action is to examine how and why Highland Council is operating less efficiently, and making budgetary savings and management changes accordingly.

So, Councillor Alston, you are not asking the right questions. You are not at the moment, even publishing the kind of figures and information that enable the people of the region to ask the right questions. And if you don't ask the right questions, you won't get the right - or indeed any useful - answers.

The danger with this present exercise is that it fosters the illusion of a scrutiny and review process, while failing to shed any light on those areas which represent the major part of Council spending. The areas to focus on are NOT the museums, care homes and leisure facilities. It may be true that every little helps. But taken together, these kind of amenities account for only a minuscule share of the budget, while fulfilling a role within the communities of the region that - as others have commented - is critically important.
To cite an analogy that has been quoted elsewhere - if you have to lose weight, you don't do so by chopping off hands, arms or feet: you slim down those parts of the body that are carrying a little too much fat.'

And for more comment on general issues (remember libraries and museums are under threat too) look here.

1 comment:

Cut and come again said...

When the cuts come are going to be decided by bums on seats (no not talking benches along the river or about certain councillors here)

If it is, then the likes of facilities in larger towns are going to seem the most cost effective, books borrowed, leisure tickets sold, bottles recycled etc
or as suggested most blogger comments, or even (dismissed by one person) Facebook hits

If the yardstick is unfair or can't be agreed on what chance do council have of getting the cuts agreed by the people?

None, no one wants them!