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Now the dust has settled after the 4th May election, it may be helpful to reflect upon the changes of councillor representation within the comhairle, and to pass comment. Travelling south from Harris via the Uists to Barra and Vatersay – Wards 3, 2 and 1 - there are only two of the original 10 councillors remaining. Change for sure, but for the best? The only certain outcome I can anticipate at present, is that of “uncertainty”, such is the shock and confusion being experienced by almost daily events here, at home, and abroad.

The political landscape across Europe, UK and Scotland is rapidly changing, with Brexit now triggered, elections in France and Germany, UK general election on 8th June and the prospect of IndyRef2 within 18 months. The austerity agenda remains with us well into the foreseeable future, with the threat of another £3bn cuts from Westminster to Holyrood, and the consequential knock-on effects of this on our 32 councils. Audit Scotland, COSLA and respected commentators see no light at the end of this dark tunnel.

The comhairle’s director of finance will already have briefed all of our thirty-one newly elected councillors on this scenario, with likely cuts to the comhairle budget of £12m to £15m by 2020-21: this on top of cuts already actioned since 2010 of upwards of £35m. This has of course resulted already in many job losses, and loss of certain services.

Given this backdrop, I became increasingly alarmed at some of the old familiar clichéd soundbites being used by many of the prospective councillors in the run up to the 4th May election: phrases such as “shout,” “demand,” “fight,” “loss of services,” “protect our community,” “need to have our voice heard,” and etc. Whilst these emotional outpourings are in themselves worthwhile sentiments, which may have appealed to the electorate, they are undoubtedly far removed from the reality of resources now available. No mention did I hear of further increases in council tax or how these candidates for office would choose to prioritise services.

The Audit Commission and the Scottish Government have emphasised the need for local authorities to find different and innovative ways to address predicted funding shortfalls, addressing the need to improve on public service “outcomes”, transforming services rather than arbitrary and crude percentage top-slicing of budgets, which in many authorities has been the practice up to now.

My period of office as a councillor in Ward 2 from 2015-17, leaves me feeling slightly more optimistic about how the comhairle goes about its business, in this unprecedented climate of financial austerity. Stability and continuity remains within our corporate management team (CMT), if not elsewhere, with so many newly elected members sitting in chambers.

The CMT of the comhairle comprises a group of experienced and skilled executive managers, who have worked tirelessly with their respective staff, and in reports to Councillors, to effect policy changes, often as demanded by reducing budgets, and at the same time protecting front-line services to our most vulnerable client groups.

Changes to services though don’t always follow directly from budget cuts! The process of responding to, for instance, demographic challenges, necessitates a “whole systems” approach, based of course on statutory legislation, eligibility criteria, and an agreed formula for prioritising competing service needs on diminishing resources, in keeping with the overarching principles of care in the community.

An example of good practice: The Integrated Joint Board, Health and Social Care, has had difficult decisions to make with regard to service redesign of the Mobile Overnight Support Service. A comprehensive analysis was undertaken, and a unique and valuable overnight service, costing about £425,000 to deliver, has been redesigned to provide a late night service up to 12 midnight, and an early morning service commencing at 6.30am. The committee report comments: “In the Uists, … the outcome of the reassessment process has concluded that seven service users in receipt of MOSS in the Uists could have their care rescheduled to late evening and early morning care without any detriment to outcomes being met. Importantly this would also increase the access to evening care within this locality” (Integrated Joint Board, December 2016).

So, a service redesign approach, with all stakeholders consulted, has resulted in efficiency savings, and other service users benefiting from this late evening/early morning service. The result: Best value, and better outcomes for a greater number of service users. Other excellent examples of service redesign can be evidenced from recent reports to Education and Children’s Services Committee, such as recruitment of professional foster careers and adoptive parents for looked after children, promoting family placement objectives supported by locally based residential respite. New teaching methods as exemplified by eSgoil developments are attracting the attention of the Cabinet Secretary for Education, and leading the way nationally.

Yes, it is the economy, but not solely the economy, which determines how we respond to austerity, with sound leadership, clear thinking and innovation the order of the day. I am sure our new councillors will already be actively involved in engaging with their respective communities, and Comhairle committees, in the on-going challenges they face, but I sincerely hope that they will also bring with them an attitude that by working together, Members and Officers, a great deal can be accomplished.

It has been said that “change is as good as a rest.” Well, I’m off for a rest, but our new councillors, comhairle leader and convener, and committee chairs, will be required to work harder than ever, helping to steer us all through the stormy waters which lie ahead. Public consultations on budget choices will likely follow in late autumn. Councillors' pre-election promises may soon come back to bite them, but they undoubtedly now have a mandate to expect our support.

Andrew Walker
3 Kyles Flodda
Isle of Benbecula

Letter:  “It’s the economy, stupid”

23 May 2017