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Selling an island’s future for £2,000 is a Ministerial responsibility

The people of Raasay loose the right to exploit their own resources for £2,000. New Public Management allows officials to run society without political interference – but only if Ministers refuse to interfere.

So what would be the going rate for undermining the sustainability of an entire island community? £2,000 apparently. That’s the difference between the commercial bid for the hunting rights on Raasay and the bid from the local community which has held the lease for the last 18 years. The right to hunt and fish was used to produce inexpensive venison and other game for the members of the community. Now it will be sold to corporate clients who will pop over to the island for the day, shoot some deer, drink some fine wines and then head back home to continue manipulating the Libor rates or rigging the energy markets or selling weapons to autocratic regimes or whatever.

What is not to support about the community owning the lease? Local food, high quality of assured provenance, localised economic development, sustainably managed land (the community went on training courses on how to manage the deer population carefully), mutuality, economic security – it reads like everything government is supposed to be encouraging. What made it think £2,000 was worth ruining this for?

The expropriation of Raasay’s natural assets from its people by managers transferring rights (and profits) to commercial entities echoes one of the most consistent themes which have arisen since the Foundation was established. Our first report was on procurement. Here, professionals working from guidelines and frameworks established with a heavy weighting to multinational corporations are shutting out small Scottish businesses from public sector procurement contracts. Our analysis was very widely supported – ever since we have been contacted by many different organisations and companies who have faced this problem.

I have spoken to small businesses who want to sell to public sector organisations which in turn want to buy from the small business. But neither side is allowed because a centralised system has sown-up the procurement contracts into a size that makes it virtually impossible for small companies to make a meaningful bid for work. This isn’t ‘break into the market’ cases either – these are organisations and businesses that have long-standing relationships that are coming to an end because someone somewhere else has decided that it ‘must’ be otherwise.

I spoke to someone who sat on the board of a large public sector procurement agency. It was buying meat for schools; she wanted a small local supplier who had met all the criteria but had lost out solely because of indicators of scale to be included in the eligible suppliers. Others on the board agreed. The officials, startled, informed the board that it did not have the power to do that. In fact, the board was told it had only two powers – to say yes and accept everything as given or to say no and reject the entire process, forcing everyone to start again. She resigned.

I attended an Oxfam event at which a number of local communities talked about how they had tried to develop local infrastructure and initiatives. In almost every case they reported the biggest problem being ‘officials’. The one that stuck most clearly in my mind was a case in Linwood where Council officials said ‘this is the leisure centre you’re getting’, the local community by an very large majority (there was a petition signed by a big proportion of the locals) said ‘no, this is the leisure centre we need and want’ and the Council officials said ‘no, this is the leisure centre you’re getting’. The local councillor reported being powerless in the face of decisions being made by officials.

I could keep going on in this vein – the response to both our procurement report and our local democracy report have elicited many responses of a similar sort. The problem is not hard to identify. In the case of procurement, you give a right-wing activist with links to large multinationals (John McLelland) responsibility for writing the procurement rules. These turn out to be much more restrictive than the procurement rules in the rest of Europe (where they make efforts to protect indigenous industry). You then get much of the implementation done by other multinationals – a sequence of policy and IT consultants create a virtually automated system that leaves coal-face procurement officials with almost no leeway in decision-making. The results speak for themselves.

And then there is an extended power struggle between elected politicians and centralised unelected senior officials. Some of the briefing coming from professionals on ‘what is and isn’t possible’ in terms of procurement reform are, bluntly, not truthful. We revealed advice which said ‘this would be illegal under EU law’ and then compared it to exactly the same practice being pursued in many other EU countries.

The local government situation is at times even worse. In my small local town we had a meeting recently in which the ‘local representatives’ were almost outnumbered by local authority professionals. Because I have been involved with this kind of work a lot I tried to stretch the framework they were setting out for us to be more relevant to local conditions (we are a very active small town – we don’t need professionals telling us how to set up community groups, we need proper infrastructure support for the 70-plus community organisations already operating). Nope. ‘Capacity building’ (sending in well-paid professionals to tell us how to do things we’re already doing) was the purpose. So we went through the motions and nothing happened. The capacity to say ‘no’ to this is almost non-existent. I would need to try and lobby Councillors representing urban areas 40 miles from me to fight powerful officials they have no vested interest in fighting. Democracy it isn’t.

This is all about New Public Management, a philosophy that took hold during the Thatcher years. It creates ‘not to be argued with’ tools that virtually make your decisions for you on the basis of pre-programmed responses to the numbers you type in. It is a very popular approach among those who don’t much like democracy’s unfortunate habit of sometimes choosing outcomes other than private profit. Now no-one has to argue over wether to take contracts away from small local suppliers – create a formula which guarantees it will happen every time and then walk away. In perpetuity it will keep delivering what you want virtually immune from democracy. It is this approach to government that dominates decision-making in Scotland.

But I write ‘virtually’ for a very good reason. As on Raasay, as with procurement, the choice to say ‘there is nothing we can do about this’ is a political choice, not a legal obligation. There is no need to build leisure centres you already have architects drawings for because the construction company likes it. Any local authority can build any leisure centre they like. There is no need to cut small Scottish businesses out of procurement contracts. The Scottish Government can choose not to do it. No-one had to take the hunting rights away from the people of Raasay. At any point a Minister could have stepped in and said ‘stop this madness now’.

There are two problems for politicians in all of this. One is visibility and one is inertia. The visibility problem is that most of these decision-making processes are virtually hidden almost all the time – those frozen horse burgers just turn up at the school kitchen door and few people know how or why its these ones. I doubt that any Ministers really knew that Raasay’s hunting rights were about to be taken from them. And local authorities are great at taking pictures of new leisure centres that the local community doesn’t want. They have PR departments to get just enough smiling children in the photo to make democracy seem churlish.

The inertia problem is worse. Officials don’t really like politicians meddling in their affairs. They are past masters at making all reform seem impossible. And when they can call on the support of corporate partners (‘see, PWC says it’s a good idea and its clients are happy’) they can often out-gun the government they are a part of. I have seen this on more than one occasion – public sector officials working closely with corporate partners to build an impenetrable case for reform not to be considered.

But – and this is the big but – the fact that your job isn’t easy doesn’t exempt you from doing it. If a social worker was to shrug his shoulders and say ‘jeez, poverty is just too big a problem – I’m not coming in tomorrow’ or a doctor said ‘cancer, no point really trying to be honest’, politicians would have something to say about it. So ‘my officials are keeping things from me and making it hard for me to change things’ is no excuse. The Raasay decision should be overturned immediately.

But that’s not enough. There must then be a proper investigation into what process led to that decision, and Ministers must act to fix the process, not just one result. The same is the case for the right of local communities to make decisions for themselves in the face of opposition by officials – we have a solid proposal for reform of local democracy on the table and a good case for why it is necessary. If it’s not looked at and nothing is done, that becomes the fault of Ministers. And the procurement reform legislation is widely believed to be loosing teeth faster than an elderly crocodile. If it comes out with the conclusion that ‘basically everything is fine’, that will be a scandal.

It is a Minister’s job to fight their officials, to challenge process when it produces bad outcomes. It is reasonable to say ‘this wasn’t my decision and I’m not happy about it’. It is most certainly not reasonable to head off home with the problem unresolved.

Robin McAlpine