Pat Watters has been defending councils for almost a decade – and has the scars to prove it. But can he emerge from this latest turmoil unscathed?
Pat Watters is a man well used to political storms. As president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities for almost ten years, he owes his success to his ability to read the political landscape and spot, with unerring accuracy, the big prize for councils and how to grab it.
But recent days have seen that landscape change almost beyond recognition. The fallout over the Scottish Government’s budget deal for local government has ripped a public fissure through what until now had been an unprecedented show of unity. As the political pressure heightens ahead of next year’s elections, the debate over council funding has disintegrated into an unseemly brawl.
In some cases, ill feeling has spilled over into personal abuse. Last month Watters was named local politician of the year in recognition of his efforts to keep the Concordat afloat and secure the best possible settlement for councils in this year’s budget.
But when he went up to collect his award, he found himself booed by Labour colleagues, resentful of the relationship forged by COSLA with the SNP minority government.
Watters says the incident left him unfazed.
“It really, to be honest, doesn’t bother me in the least,” he says. “Some people feel I should have been fighting the Government. I’m only going to fight the Government when there’s a fight to have.” His sole aim, he says, has been to secure the best possible deal for local government.
“COSLA is a complex organisation, and my job is to represent it as best I can,” he says. “My one and only interest in all these discussions is that local government gets the best deal possible and recognition of what we do.” Is he still confident that the package secured by the local government side was the best deal possible? “If anybody could have got a better deal, I’m still waiting to hear it,” he says.
At the heart of the discontent is the Scottish Government’s determination that council tax will be frozen for a fourth year.
This year, Finance Secretary John Swinney drove a particularly hard bargain, insisting councils sign up, by next week at the latest, for not just the freeze but commitments on police numbers and class sizes.
Councils know that turning down the deal will cost them dear, both financially and at the ballot box. According to one senior local government figure, to reject the package in those circumstances would be “insane”. “The tax structure is so rigged against them,” he says. “Almost certainly no one will.” The real question, though, will be whether councils can, ahead of the government deadline, offer Swinney anything more than qualified letters of intent. With the majority of councils now run as coalitions and minority administrations, leaders may be unable to give a binding guarantee on any element of what is certain to be a stormy and unpredictable budget-setting process stretching out until February.
There is also a question mark over the legality of a budget that effectively offers a choice between two funding scenarios, each with radically different distributional consequences: a cut of 2.6 per cent for councils that complies with the Government’s wishes, and a cut of 6.4 per cent for those who don’t.
A process of judicial review sparked by one or more councils with no desire to prop up the SNP Government could throw the whole budget process into meltdown.
These will be only some of the issues now under consideration by Labour councils who walked out of the budget negotiations in a fury.
Watters stresses that there had been “no strong objections” among member councils to the proposed negotiating line. The disagreement had been over whether negotiators had a mandate to amend the proposals in the course of negotiations with government, or whether changes had to be brought back to councils for discussion. “The objection was to whether negotiators should have flexibility to change those proposals to get a deal with government – that’s where we broke down,” he said. “Leaders were concerned that we didn’t drastically change the proposals that were there.” Failure to reach agreement across COSLA’s political groups is surprisingly rare, says Watters.
Dissent over the council tax talks was “one of the very few occasions” that the organisation had had a vote and division. “We reach that consensus 99.9 per cent of the time without a division [and] that’s a strength,” he says.
That doesn’t mean disagreement is a bad thing – quite the reverse. “In reaching that consensus, what we have tried never to do is stifle the debate that gets us there, because that debate is important,” he says. “We are a capital P political organisation. Our job is to ensure what we don’t get is party political politics overriding the discussions we’re having in the organisation.” But party politics are an increasingly dominant feature in local/national relations.
The arrival of the SNP Government at Holyrood marked a watershed: for the first time COSLA, itself more politically diverse than ever, entered negotiations with a government at Holyrood of a different stripe, and a minority administration to boot. New ministers were anxious to work with councils to secure policy priorities, and local government spotted an opportunity to secure significant prizes. “The relationship with this government has been different to the relationship with the last government, which was in coalition with another party, and I don’t mind saying, I exploited that difference,” says Watters.
Those negotiations, in the concrete form of the Concordat, delivered “immense benefit” to local government, he says. Of particular value has been a dramatic reduction in ringfencing which has given councils far greater local discretion over how they allocate their resources. “Authorities hold that as the biggest prize we’ve got,” says Watters.
That doesn’t mean that his relationship with the Scottish Government has been plain sailing. “I said at my very first meeting [with Swinney], there will be areas we can work together, there will be areas where we will clash,” says Watters. “We are never going to be holding hands all the time. I’ve had many long arguments with John, he’s had arguments with me. What we have tried to do is park that argument and move on to the next issue.” Politics far too often is about personalities, according to Watters. “I am not interested in the personalities, I’m interested in the issues, and the issues don’t have a personality to worry about,” he says. “I love a good argument.
I don’t shy away from a really good fight. But making progress is what I’m interested in.” Regardless of which party wins power at next year’s elections, says Watters, councils will seek to establish a mature, constructive relationship that preserves parity of esteem between the two tiers of government. “Whatever government is in power, local government will sit down with them and look at how we can take the agenda forward,” he says.
But whoever forms the next Scottish Government, they will soon be dealing with a new COSLA president. Watters has confirmed that his current presidential term, his third, will be his last. “When we come to the [local] elections, I will have had 11 years as president,” he says. “It’s not my intention to stand as president again. It would not be right for me to continue after 11 years, and I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I know I will miss it greatly, but it’s right that someone else should get the opportunity.” Whoever takes over will have a big job to do – not just in fighting councils’ corner, but in replacing a figure who has for so long dominated the local government landscape.