The big issues for local government
As we approach 3 May, it would be easy for the political parties to sit back and relax, their big guns silent, still recovering from the whirlwind that was last year’s Scottish Parliament election.
After all, for many, local government does not hold the same gravitas as its larger, louder cousins at Holyrood and Westminster. Indeed, it receives its share of ridicule, with councillors seemingly obsessed with the “small” issues like dog fouling, pot holes and seagulls. No-one would argue that bin collection dates are as headline grabbing as making laws or gaining new tax powers. However, it is wrong to dismiss local government. You can present the most complex and sophisticated political arguments to the public, make impassioned speeches and promise people the world but at the end of the day, they just want the best for their families. This includes well maintained roads, buses that run on time and well maintained schools.
It might seem like stating the obvious, but council elections are about local issues and party politics often take a back seat. Fortunately, many of the parties have taken heed of this by launching specific manifestos, focusing on how they aim to improve life in individual cities and areas, drawing on their national agendas but changing the details to ring true with the public whose votes they want to catch.
For prospective councillors, their lot is a tough one, both on the doorsteps prior to the polls opening, and if they are lucky enough to be voted in. Councils are the proverbial men on the ground, responsible for almost every aspect of our daily lives. Social care, education, planning, infrastructure, housing, licensing, roads and so much more falls under the remit of local authorities. In 2011, councils in Scotland spent around £21bn, employed 240,000 full time equivalent staff and used buildings and other assets with a value of £35bn. Add to this a climate of reducing budgets and growing demand, where councils are expected to make huge savings across the board and you get some perspective of the sheer scale of the task local authorities face.
Last year the Christie Commission published recommendations on public sector reform.
Christie was never going to prescribe a wholesale top-down restructuring of local government and neither was it going to come up with any money saving initiatives overlooked by everyone else working in the public sector for the past 10 years. However, it could have echoed the prevailing political momentum, away from diversity and local democracy, and towards merger and centralisation.
In the end, Christie produced a thoughtful report, making clear the scale of the financial challenges faced by the public sector in Scotland. Blaming social and economic inequality for much of the rampant demand for public services, it called for resources to be focused in future on preventative measures and for a new collaborative culture to take root across public services. The current system of delivery is “fragmented, complex and opaque”, said Christie and characterised by a lack of accountability and unresponsiveness to the needs of individuals. The solution, it argued, lay in building public services around people and communities, ensuring public bodies work effectively together and prioritising prevention rather than cure.
Another major ongoing issue for local authorities is the UK Government’s legislation to reform the welfare system. These changes will start to come into effect from April 2013 and by 2017, all benefits, such as Jobseeker’s allowance, child benefit and housing benefits will form part of the new universal credit. Scottish councils currently administer housing and council tax benefits but because the former will be part of the universal credit, this responsibility will end after 2017. A recent report from the Accounts Commission found these changes will have “significant implications” for councils. Speaking to Holyrood, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ (COSLA) community safety and wellbeing spokesman Harry McGuigan said COSLA is aware of the need to change the current welfare system but raised serious concerns about the lack of detail and clarity.
He said: “There is very little dissent from the view that the current benefits arrangements are complex, confusing and cluttered. They result in inefficient administration, which can result in delays and difficulties around payments with the accompanying worry and anxiety for clients.
We recognise all of that. It is a muddled set-up at present and can act as a disincentive for those wishing to work but [who] are afraid to do so in case they end up financially worse off. It may also discourage people from applying for benefit because it is so complex and the consequence of that is people forgo benefits that they are entitled to.” COSLA, which is set for a shake-up after it was announced that long-serving and highly respected president Pat Watters is standing down after 3 May, remains a vital organisation for local authorities. At its conference in February, COSLA’s chief executive Rory Mair used his speech to focus on the partnership between local and central government in the light of the changed political landscape following the SNP’s historic victory at Holyrood. A month later, the Scottish Government and COSLA announced they had agreed Scotland’s first Statement of Ambition about how to improve the way local services are delivered.
The statement, which covered public services provided to communities by councils, the NHS, emergency services, and other public agencies, is the first step in a major review designed to put Scotland’s community planning partnerships at the centre of an outcome-based approach to public services in Scotland. The aim of community planning is to make sure that people and communities are genuinely engaged in decisions about public services that affect them, and to ensure that organisations work together, not apart, to provide better public services.
Watters said: “Scotland has set out on that journey, and this Statement of Ambition is a major step forward in agreeing ways to ensure that community planning partnerships truly take centre stage in translating public services into better outcomes. Delivering that ambition will require commitment from across the public sector, but we must all rise to the challenge if we are to grasp this unprecedented opportunity to make a real difference to Scotland’s communities.” Since the SNP Government came to power in 2007, the relationship between local and national government has undergone a dramatic transformation, with the Concordat underpinning a new parity of esteem between Scotland’s two tiers of government. Speaking to Holyrood, Local Government Minister Derek Mackay said: “That positive constructive relationship will continue and in John Swinney as a cabinet secretary who has worked incredibly well with local government, the spirit of the Concordat continues. Clearly we are coming to local government elections, which turn the temperature up, but one of my first major commitments is to go and speak at a COSLA leaders’ meeting to ensure that that positive relationship continues. When parties disagree it makes the headlines but we actually agree and get on with the job much more than we get credit for as politicians.” With many other complex issues, such as massive changes to the planning system, police and fire reforms and a looming homelessness target on the horizon, new councillors are going to be shouldering a heavy burden. The landscape of local government is complex, vibrant and vitally important to millions of people. In order to run efficiently, it should be populated by a group of elected members with the passion and drive to serve their communities, and unfortunately, as Pat Watters warned in his final speech to the COSLA conference, “failure is not an option”.