From romantic to realist, one man's journey toward council reform

Article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

HERE is a wildly unlikely sentence. Interesting ideas are emerging in a Scottish local authority. Municipal matters are just so staggeringly dull. How can ordinary mortals get to understand the labyrinthine ways of civic finance let alone the special dialects of local bureaucracy? Yet I think I can detect the ghost of Sir Walter Scott in events beginning to stir in the Scottish Borders Council (SBC).

We have a new political entity - the Borders Party. It won only two seats in June but they are resolved to take every seat one day. The founder, Nicholas Watson, was awoken from his political slumbers when SBC announced they were going to engulf the countryside around Abbotsford, the temple of Scottish romanticism, with hundreds of noddy homes.

He created a successful campaign to deflect this brutalism.

He then found the councillors fancied themselves as businessmen and were going to subsidise a little railway from Edinburgh to Galashiels. The council argued it had to authorise thousands of new bungalows to ensure a population adequate to fill the trams as they trundled up to Waverley.

Watson had lost his political innocence. Most would have been content with some modest victories and returned to their normal business - he is a professional clock maker and mender. The birth of the Borders Party and its early limited success means he and his colleagues are in the market for ideas.

This is where I think it gets really very intriguing. Where do the politically active get ideas from?

Maynard Keynes said they were most influenced by long-dead economists.

In the case of The Borders Party, the long-dead economist whose invisible hand may be detected is Adam Smith, the personal hero of Gordon Brown.

A more recently deceased economist whose presence can be detected in the Borders is Professor Milton Friedman. He died only last year.

The Reason Foundation in California has developed an international expertise in opening up the closed and fetid world of town hall provision. They are offering advice to the Borders Party.

In Edinburgh, the Policy Institute is also filtering advice to embolden Watson and his team.

The Centre for Scottish Public Policy has also opened the door for discussing ideas. It is all quite exciting. Local authorities are usually idea-free zones.

Given the uglification of much of the handsome Borders countryside by the local authority's "planning" processes, the Borders Party is examining the possibilities of relaxing municipal controls and leaving new construction to a harmonisation of third-party rights.

"The pleasing bits of the Scottish burgh townscapes all predate planning. Perhaps the most triumphant is Edinburgh's New Town. This was created by a subtle process of private contracts - not by the aesthetic taste of a few councillors.

"The Borders could learn from Scotland's past. The relaxation of local authority constrictions in the London Docklands gives a hint of what is possible," argues Watson.

Dr Mark Pennington is the most lucid critic of the paradox that planning brings its own blights. SBC operates 46 nursery schools, 65 primary schools and nine secondary schools. The Borders Party wonders if the present school arrangements could not be liberalised too.

"If SBC pays £4,000 per pupil then let them give every family a voucher to be redeemed at the school they wanted. The very idea of institutionalised teaching may dissolve. Literacy and numeracy would soar. Choice is creative," adds one of the Borders Party team. "This could be a big vote winner if offered with wit."

The Reason Foundation argues that, like every Scottish local authority, Borders has a huge portfolio of sleeping assets - mostly buildings but also land.

There may be enough to be auctioned off and not used to swell the municipal treasure chest but to give it back to the electors.

The council could declare a dividend rather than impose a tax. This sounds fanciful but some US councils have achieved this. Watson expresses doubts but what a revolution this could be.

Nobody thinks of local authority culture as enterprising or risk taking. The Borders Party wants to look at contracting out large parts of current activities.

Refuse is valuable. Let private contractors take over the council's role.

SBC is tied into a partnership with other councils which isn't working and which stifles local waste initiatives. In Japan, firms pay for domestic debris.

Could The Borders Party entirely reverse the mind set of the Unison zeitgeist?

I fear Watson may be just too nice to assert himself against the monstrous sloth of Scottish local authority life.

As councils go, Scottish Borders Council is relatively well run. There have been scandals and disasters but they are wholesome compared to many more urban authorities.

Reason Foundation's Robert Poole adds: "Experience shows private contractors can provide a service at half the cost of in-house staff. Savings of two-thirds are not uncommon."

Watson is yet to be committed to any of these ideas but what I find arresting is that the frozen assumptions of local authority life are possibly thawing.

Only 20 years it would have seemed deluded to talk of councils getting out of housing provision. Now they have.

The late Nicholas Ridley used to observe there are only two types of councillors - the Lefties who want to do ever more and the Tories who want to do what the town hall officials tell them to do. We need a new force to attempt ideas long suppressed.

• John Blundell is Director General & Ralph Harris Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

To see this article in The Scotsman please
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