Pat Watters signs off from local government after clocking up 30 years as an elected councillor
As Scotland’s newest intake of councillors adjust to a radically altered local government landscape, dominated by coalitions of all stripes, Pat Watters, the doyen of local politics, is relaxing on a sun lounger on the Costa del Sol considering his future over a glass or two of vino.
Watters, in an interview with Holyrood two years ago, announced his intention to depart local government politics after more than 11 years at the helm of COSLA as first, Vice- President and then, President. He said then that he simply did not want ‘to outstay my welcome’.
Speaking to Holyrood last week, in his final interview before leaving office, he admitted, tearfully, that while he may be harbouring a few second thoughts, it was still the right decision for the future of COSLA.
“Someone said to me recently that there are people in local government now that have never known any President other than me and I’m not sure that is such a good thing,” he says with characteristic humility. “I still think there is a work in progress here but I think you can be too long in an organisation and I think there probably needs to be a refreshing of views. I would hope that whoever replaces me would still hold the same basic instincts but you can have somebody at the head too long.
“Of course, I have some doubts about going but if I was standing again, it would have been for a five-year term and I would be nearly 70 and I just don’t think that is right. I know people can be fit and mentally able at 70 and I am not knocking that but to be in the most senior level in local government for all this time and at that age, well, I just think it is time for a change.
“Who knows, I might regret it but on the other hand, I might not have been elected again and I might not have been elected President again. I think it is also right for Marilyn [Watters’ wife of 40 years], who is a typical politician’s wife, she’s happy between elections but she hates elections themselves. She found it much more stressful than I did and when you think I was a full-time politician for 30 years and that when I came up for election, everything was up for grabs, she found that very difficult. She has been tremendous support to me and next week she’ll be much more relaxed about it all than I will be but I have found a way of dealing with that – being half-cut in Spain.”
Clear head or not, whatever Watters is missing this week and you can be sure that he has been texting and clocking up the minutes on his mobile, trying to work out the fallout from the elections, undoubtedly, in these turbulent times, both politically and economically, his reassuring presence will be sorely missed.
After serving an historic three terms in office as COSLA’s President, Watters is, for many, the figurehead of Scottish town-hall politics.
Following on from devolution, at a time when local government could easily have slipped off the media’s radar, that easily identifiable shock of white hair was always there right in the thick of any political milieu, more often than not helping pour oil on troubled waters and steering local government through some very difficult times.
He is credited with rebuilding COSLA following bitter schisms which saw Glasgow, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire councils temporarily exit the umbrella body, he forged an historic Concordat agreement with an SNP minority government, aided the smooth introduction of SOAs, helped negotiate ‘the best possible’ financial settlement for councils in harsh economic times, secured the pay and conditions for public sector workers, including a no compulsory redundancy agreement, was instrumental in the introduction of the Scottish Single Status Agreement and the McCrone deal on teachers’ pay, and effectively, he put his own Labour Party politics to one side for the good of the whole.
And with the signing of the Concordat, the SNP Government got the support it required from an area of the public sector that could be a powerful irritant. In turn, local government got an enhanced funding package, increased autonomy, the right to retain efficiency savings and a respected seat at the Government table.
However, it also meant councils signed up to a range of SNP policy pledges including an aspiration to cut class sizes and provide free school meals. Such was Watters nonpartisan approach he appeared to reprimand many within his own political party when he told leaders of councils in Scotland to get on with providing free school meals and stop complaining. He wrote to Scotland’s 32 council leaders after the majority said they had not been given the money to provide free school meals for all P1 to P3 children, estimated to be £50m nationally.
In his letter, Watters said: “I have made it clear that I believe the resources for this provision are included in the overall settlement and that agreement to the settlement was made in the full knowledge that free school meals was part of that financial provision. I am, therefore, surprised and concerned that there appears to be a view that insufficient provision has been made for this policy or that there was no agreement by COSLA that free school meals would be provided.”
This was not the first time he had intervened to support the SNP Government. During the negotiation on the Concordat, he publicly attacked Wendy Alexander, Labour leader at the time, over claims that services would be cut as a consequence, prompting Ken Macintosh, Labour’s schools spokesman, to say: “Whatever ministers or Pat Watters are saying, it is clear the money has not been provided and the Scottish Government is trying to pass the buck for its broken promises on to councils, which is outrageous.”
And when figures were leaked by his own party, which they claimed indicated that the deal on offer to COSLA by the Scottish Government was a poor one, with any extra money being swallowed up in funding a council-tax freeze, Watters said Labour was “quite mistaken” and that he had been having “mature and sensible discussions” with Scottish ministers and wouldn’t be “bounced” into altering that approach.
His apparent defence of the SNP prompted sharp criticism from within his own party, some of whom booed when he was named local politician of the year at an awards ceremony in 2010, but also from others, such as the Tory MSP David McLetchie who went so far as to accuse Watters of becoming a “ragged cheerleader for the SNP Government”.
Watters says he was wrongly perceived as a political turncoat and only did what he needed to do to get the best possible outcomes for local government and local communities. He also blew accusations of bias out of the water when, during last year’s parliamentary elections, he branded all the party offerings, including the SNP’s, as “the political equivalent of junk food”.
Despite that, Watters was one of the first people the SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney, phoned immediately after those elections and he also received a very personable letter from the First Minister earlier this month wishing him ‘a very happy non-retirement’.
Notwithstanding the bouquets and brickbats, it is Watters’ key role in helping forge the historic Concordat agreement between the Scottish Government and local government for which he’ll be best remembered. Although, many commentators conisdered it bizarre that this was a relationship established with an SNP Government when councils in Scotland had previously been dominated by Labour politicians, many of whom went on to become MSPs and government ministers within the first two parliaments.
Indeed, it seemed counterintuitive that instead of being able to rely on the support of Labour comrades in previous parliaments, Watters was frequently at loggerheads with ministers, suffering accusations that councillors were part timers, that public sector reform should be restricted to local government, that powers should be eroded rather than enhanced and that funding should be more centrally directed. In response, Watters said simply that councillors who became MSPs changed once they got through the Parliament door and while he hoped that their experiences in local government would help inform their job at Holyrood, he would leave others to judge whether it did or not.
What is not in dispute is that since the SNP came to power in 2007, there has been more of a love-in. And, perhaps as a result, Watters has been disparaged by those Labour Party colleagues in Holyrood who have failed to understand his apparent support of SNP policies. For impartial observers, the anomaly has been that it fell to an SNP administration to forge a strong and more formalised relationship with local government. Watters himself describes the situation as ‘disturbing’.
“I think some of my Labour colleagues in Parliament during the last Labour Executive may have questioned where I was politically,” he says. “They failed to understand that I was there not to represent them, I was there to represent local government and I am very clear about that responsibility. I have a job to do on behalf of local government and if I can work in partnership with government to do that I will, no matter what its political make-up.
“Many of the things that we gained from the Concordat, like the SOAs and the influence we gained in the policy-making process which means we get the opportunity to shape that policy as well as implement it in the future, are things we had discussed with government from 1999 on because we thought there were opportunities to change the way Scotland was governed. The fact that that only came to fruition when the SNP came in in 2007 is disturbing for me as a Labour member. I don’t know why that didn’t happen before but my Labour colleagues did seem reluctant to get into that kind of power sharing and there was definitely more of a focus on centralisation; we had the central correction agency and the central transport agency, all of which local government had a real ding dong with the Scottish Government on and it is difficult to look back and work out why we didn’t make more headway then but I think at the beginning, the administrations were looking to assert their power and were looking for more powers, not less.
“Frankly, I found it really disturbing. I also found it disturbing that I could persuade a new SNP government of the view that local government had held for quite some time that it should have a more equal footing with central government and that I could persuade my political opponents as such in the SNP to come on side but not my colleagues in the Labour Party to do it. I found it very disappointing we couldn’t do it earlier and although we were in discussions with the finance minister, Tom McCabe, at the time, it wasn’t until the change of government in 2007 that we really sat down to discuss it properly. We were very clear that we didn’t want to strip the Scottish Parliament of powers but we did want more control of what we were doing for ourselves and we wanted to work in a new relationship.
“We recognised that in 2007 there was the opportunity with minority government that we could do it and that we would be a good partner to have. I think it is true that, perhaps, my party wasn’t listening to local government and they saw us as more of a bother than anything else and I don’t say that lightly. There was a view, albeit a minority view, that we should just do as we were told in local government. Well, I am sorry, I am not here to do as I am told. I am elected to represent my communities at home and in here [COSLA] to represent local government and I am not here to be told what to do by anyone…
“Do not get me wrong, Mandy, I think discipline is important in parties and I am not an independent and I am a member of a party and discipline is important but only once you have had the opportunity to discuss and debate the issues and then come to a conclusion and that is reached democratically. If someone else reaches that decision behind closed doors and then they come and tell you what to do, that is treating you like a mushroom and we are not mushrooms in local government, we are a sphere of government, not an arm of government, we are a part of [the] governance of this country and that is important.”
For many in local government, the wellrespected Watters is COSLA and for that very reason, he believes it is time for him to go and make way for fresh ideas. His loyalty to COSLA is unquestionable but surprisingly, following a lifetime of dedicated public service, rewarded in 2006 with a CBE, he now joins the ranks of the unemployed.
It may have been his choice not to seek reelection as a councillor and therefore effectively rule himself out as the next President of COSLA but at 64, and with a lifetime of public service behind him, Watters says his first appointment when he gets back from Spain will be with the local Job Centre. It’s a fact that could be a neat metaphor for good old-fashioned town-hall politics, rooted in an age when you simply did what you thought was right, out of duty rather than for reward. It’s a sacrifice that Watters believed was worth paying, even though, as he approaches retirement, he is left with a less than secure future. And as the new councils shape their power bases, he warns that that financial sacrifice remains, and is something that needs to be addressed in the future for the sake of good governance.
“It’s true that we have seen changes in local government and it is a far different place from the one I entered all those years ago. But back then there was still a heavy workload and particularly in the area I was involved in in HR and basically, the pay that you got or the remuneration you got, was £8.50 if you attended a meeting. You couldn’t sustain any kind of decent lifestyle if that was all you were doing, so many people had other jobs but when I became the chair of personnel in the old Strathclyde Region, my schedule of meetings was horrendous and I had also come to the end of an employment contract and I couldn’t get another job because of the amount of time I was spending on council work – we had 105,000 employees and I was sitting on at least three appeal hearings a week that, as chair of personnel, I had no choice but to attend. I had other meetings outwith that and was always in discussions with the trade unions at some level or another. It was a full-time job but without the salary.
“Now, certainly, the financial situation has changed but not that much. An elected member is getting £16,500 basic remuneration and nothing else on top of that and it’s not like MPs or MSPs or MEPs with a whole list of expenses to claim; if we use our car, we get mileage and that is it. So if in the future we are looking to attract a different kind of younger, more able person and all parties are focused on that and you are saying to them that they are sacrificing part of their career and sacrificing part of their family life and getting very little remuneration for it unless they get to a senior level, then I think that is wrong.
“I think we missed the opportunity when the remuneration committee met in 2007 and failed to set a level that was realistic to attract some people to come in. I don’t think we should set a level that is so different from our communities but it should be at a level that doesn’t damage, particularly those at the start of their career paths into the future by taking on a role that can be, in reality, a very substantial one. Even as a backbencher, the workload is quite heavy.
“When you consider an MSP’s salary, and at the time, my view and a view the commission had some sympathy with, was that we should be linked in some way to the salary levels of MSPs, not at the same level but linked so that we are seen as an elected tier of government and not just as some appendage to government. That would have been right to do then and while recently the review of local government salaries was recommending a 16 per cent increase but at a time when we were looking for cuts among our own staff, that could not be implemented and it was right that we decided ourselves that that was not right at that time. It is difficult for elected members to look to themselves on remuneration levels but I do think we should be linked in some way to MSPs’ salaries so if theirs goes up then so should ours. Now is clearly not the right time to do that because of the financial challenges we now face but it should be revisited when it is more appropriate, for the sake of good governance.”
Watters believes that local government is facing its biggest challenges with a perfect storm of shrinking resources and a demographic time bomb, which means greater demand for services than ever. He sat on the Christie Commission with the late Campbell Christie and enthusiastically embraces the recommendation that resources need to be diverted into preventative spend.
“The crazy thing is that we have always known that we had to interact much earlier if we were going to prevent things happening but the problem we have had in the past is enough resources to not have to change and sad to say, it is this financial situation that drives you into areas that you need to act and sadly, while we have always known that we need to intervene earlier, we are now forced into it at time that means to get the resources to do it means you have to stop x to do y and stopping x is going to have an impact. The money we have agreed; some from Scottish Government, some from local government and some from health is at least a start and actually points the way about how we need to develop.
“Following on from Christie was our review of the community planning process and up to this point, the legal responsibility has been with local government but the discussions we have had with government is about saying that has to be bigger and other parts of the public sector need to step up to the plate too and if they don’t then government will have to legislate.
“I think things have to radically change and it is about how we interact with other parts of the public sector; probably us and health, principally, but if I look at a community at the present time and ask what the main problems are, you can bring it all back to poverty. If we can interact earlier, then [we] can make a difference. If you listen to the likes of Harry Burns [Chief Medical Officer], he says that the first few years of a child’s life will determine its outcomes for the future and we need to do this in a planned way and come together in the public sector to make that difference in communities. It can be small things that make a difference, like getting the proper provision for pre-5s, making sure education is meaningful or that hospitals are being used correctly.
“For instance, my brother-in-law is in hospital and he has been in for three weeks and had two infections and he can’t come out of hospital at the present time but equally, many elderly people are there unnecessarily, which is a very expensive way to deal with the issue and it’s not where they want to be and you put their future health at risk by them being there. I am not saying we should be running hospitals, absolutely not, leave that to the clinicians, but it’s about us working with doctors better so, for instance, if an old person goes to their GP on a Friday afternoon and he is unsure about how they’ll be over the weekend, he’ll more often than not get them to hospital but he could be contacting us and we should be able to put something in place which prevents that hospital admission which saves health money and when we do that, we need to find a way of sharing resources to do things better.
“Yes, we have always known we could arrange things better but it has become more easy for us to discuss it and look for solutions since we have had the Scottish Parliament because our resources are so much closer. There has always been a necessity to see how we use these resources better but one of the problems of the past was we always had growing resources and it is a tragedy that it takes a financial disaster to make us look at how we do things better but if we don’t change, we will just see diminishing resources and more demand and the more we take away from the bottom end to pack into that top end when people are in crisis, the more people will get into crisis.
“If we don’t change the way we do things then we will eventually see services simply grinding to a halt and communities will be very much poorer as a result. As elected members at whatever level, we are in a very privileged position and we need to do everything we can to not see that kind of damage happening. Having more resources should never take away from the fact that we need to do more in terms of prevention. I was talking to Susan Deacon [former Labour MSP and health minister] a few weeks ago and we both knew, as elected politicians that this is what we should have been doing a long time ago but with rising resources, we didn’t have to.
“The change to do that now is not going to be easy and we have to be able to evaluate as we are changing and evaluate the impact. We need to stop looking at what we feed in or produce but what the impact is on our communities and individuals and that is a sea-change.”
Watters still speaks with the same enthusiasm and conviction he espoused when he was elected to the old Strathclyde Region in 1982 but he has been round the block enough to know that the public tend to dismiss all politicians as just being in it for what they can get and he remains frustrated that councillors in particular do not get the recognition he feels they deserve. For many, it can feel a thankless task.
“It is very strange,” he says. “If you ask any community what they think of education, that will come out high, social services, that will come out high or the local parks, recreational facilities and all the things that we as councillors touch, like the refuse collection and so on; they all come out very high, so people love the services but they don’t appreciate councils or councillors and yet it is them that take the decisions to provide those services. There seems to be a disconnect between services and who provides them and I would probably blame the media for that in a large part.
“Look, the only time social work services hits the press big style is when something goes wrong but if you look at the number of cases that social services deal with and the number of times it hits the press, it is infinitesimal but the whole service gets tainted by that one problem and I am not saying we don’t make mistakes, we do make mistakes and we should admit to them but we should also learn from them.
“I always say to officers that I don’t expect them to never make mistakes because the officer that hasn’t made a mistake is the officer that doesn’t do anything because if we are going to be innovative and take risks then sometimes mistakes will be made. It’s like anything else, you should never go into politics if you want to be popular and loved because you will make as many people unhappy as you do happy and there is a perception that we are all in it for ourselves but I have never met anyone in elected politics who is in for what they can get.”
I raise an eyebrow at this to which he quickly responds: “Not in local government, Mandy, not in local government.”