Flirting councils coy on change

14th July 2006 at 01:00
Like two blushing teenagers, Stirling and Clackmannanshire have begun courting. The councils are chatting each other up, eyeing services they might share but flatly deny plans for any deeper relationship. They want to remain single for as long as possible.

The summer love-in is being headed by chief executives Keir Bloomer in Clackmannanshire and Keith Yates in Stirling, both of whom will report back within three months on how to embrace new models of shared service.

Education and children's services will be in the forefront of the co-operative approach, which has the blessing of Tom McCabe, the public service reform minister, who is pressing for fewer councils and far closer collaboration between neighbouring councils.

Pundits predict the first major reforms of local government for 10 years after next May's Holyrood elections. Ahead of that the two central Scotland authorities have opened talks on how to share backroom services but, more significantly, are looking to share aspects of front-line services.

David Cameron, head of children's services in Stirling, said: "At this stage we are looking at any opportunities that arise for closer joint working but there are no discussions about sharing governance, just exploring a better and more economic service."

Both councils believe they could save pound;4 million immediately by devising new models of service and at least that much again over the next two to three years. They are moving to manage front-line services jointly while retaining their own identities.

Mr Yates said: "Clearly big gains are to be achieved if we can work together and those gains will increase as more public sector partners join us."

Mr Bloomer said: "We are two small councils which would be threatened by any centrally directed reorganisation. This report outlines in very general terms our suggestion for shared working, which would guarantee our future as separate councils that can still respond to local need."

The authorities may at first look to share quality improvement and education officers and other support services. Margaret Paterson, Clackmannanshire's leader, said: "It is early days and we are working on the details of the proposal but it is not in anyone's interests, least of all our local people, to continue as we are and be forced to reorganise in a few years' time."

In a parallel development, under the Learning and Teaching Scotland umbrella, both councils are talking with Falkirk and Perth and Kinross on extending the sharing of expertise. One authority may have a specialist officer who could work across neighbouring councils.

Elsewhere, the three Ayrshire authorities are already closer than most and share, for example, a hearing impairment peripatetic service. Graham Short, director of educational and social services, said: "We have ongoing and continuing discussions but we are already working with the other two Ayrshires and NHS Ayrshire and Arran on joint IT systems to assist with the assessment of children at risk. We have been doing this for two years as part of the integrated assessment agenda."

* Clackmannanshire has set up an independent commission to review nursery and primary education, chaired by Bob McKay, former education director in Perth and Kinross, and now a consultant. The commission, uniquely, is comprised of six parents who are supported by Sally Brown, former education professor at Stirling University, and Annette Holman, the renowned adviser on pre-school education.

A website is being set up to give parents the chance to comment on proposals. Glasgow City Council has led the way in devising new services and centres catering for children from 3-12.

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