Labour was “reluctant” to share power with local government and was more interested in centralisation while in control at Holyrood, according to the outgoing president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
Speaking about the formation of the famous Concordat, which was created in 2007 with the minority SNP Government, former Labour councillor, Pat Watters, said he found it “disturbing” that COSLA could reach an agreement with the SNP but had failed with his own party colleagues.
The Concordat set out the terms of the new relationship between the Scottish Government and local authorities, based on mutual respect and partnership. A central element of the new relationship was the ending of ring fencing of local government funding and the creation of single outcome agreements (SOA) between each council, and initially, the Scottish Government.
Speaking to Holyrood¸Watters said: “Many of the things that we gained from the Concordat, like the SOAs and the influence we gained in the policy-making process … 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 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.” Watters also believes an opportunity was missed in 2007 when the remuneration committee met to discuss councillor pay.
He added: “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.
“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.”