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Public services mergers on the cards

A SINGLE public authority handling local government, health, water and sewage, transport, police, fire, economic development, natural heritage and environmental protection could be on the cards within the next five or six years.

Proposals for new ways of combining public services in Shetland and the other Scottish islands will be put up for public consultation early next year.

They follow a study carried out by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, an independent think tank that has spent the past four years looking at how to streamline public services in Scotland.

The centre’s policy director Ross Martin has visited all three island authorities during the past few months to look for a uniquely island solution to the issues affecting the northern and western isles.

Mr Martin said that all three island groups had identified closer ties with other public agencies, such as Shetland’s Community Planning Board, but said it was important to create “a unified strategy” for all the isles.

Such moves, he claimed, would help the islands stave off any push for them to merge with each other or a mainland authority like Highland Council.

The overall strategy is an attempt by the Scottish government, with support from across the political spectrum, to reform public services and improve efficiency.

Mr Martin said: “We are looking across the whole public service family and seeing which bodies can work better as one unit.”

The public service “family” in Shetland could involve Shetland Islands Council, NHS Shetland, Scottish Water, ZetTrans, HIE Shetland, the local police and fire service, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.

Some will welcome the idea of services such as water and environmental protection returning to local democratic control.

“One of the drivers is to democratise the bodies that are not under democratic control and we will be looking at different ways to achieve that and putting them to the three island authorities to discuss,” Mr Martin said.

“There is a recognition that change is in the air and there is a very strong desire for change to be designed locally and not to be driven by Edinburgh.

“There is a likelihood of cross party support if each of the island areas can develop a model which has their community’s support.”

Orkney Islands Council convener Stephen Hagan is especially enthusiastic about having a single public authority for the islands and wants Orkney to become a pilot for the idea.

SIC convener Sandy Cluness also backed the concept, saying: “We have quite a good track record of working together in the public sector here in Shetland.

“I think that as organisations serving the Shetland community, we realise that with the ongoing economic situation facing us all we will have a much better chance of maintaining service levels and keeping jobs in the isles if we develop a strong, efficient single public service. So I very much support this initiative.”

Mr Martin said that any proposals would be likely to go out to public consultation and while some could be introduced fairly rapidly, major changes would probably be introduced with the 2016 election.

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Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021