Community planning was the buzz word at this year’s Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) Scotland conference
Community planning is one of the most important subjects for local government in Scotland right now. It is defined as the process which helps public agencies to work together with the community to plan and deliver better services which make a real difference to people’s lives. In 2007, a Concordat between the Scottish Government and local government set out the terms of a new relationship – a key element of this is the development of single outcome agreements (SOAs). A SOA is the means by which community planning partnerships agree their strategic priorities for their local area and express those priorities as outcomes to be delivered by the partners, either individually or jointly, while showing how those outcomes should contribute, relevantly, to the Scottish Government’s national outcomes. Through community planning partnerships, local leaders work with communities, and the third and private sectors to develop a long-term vision for an area and work to achieve that.
At the SOLACE Scotland conference, held this year in Renfrew, the theme was ‘change for the better’ and the discussion over the two days focused on how councils are working to make a difference across the country.
Addressing chief executives and senior managers from across Scotland, David Martin, SOLACE in Scotland’s chairman, who is also chief executive of Renfrewshire Council, said: “Post election, some 30 per cent of councillors are now first timers and there are some interesting coalitions in place across the country. There are some councils, including Renfrewshire, with a single party with overall majority, particularly in the west of Scotland. What is clear is that in all Scotland’s councils, regardless of politics, we’re all facing much the same array of major challenges. I think it is important to note that local government services touch every aspect of people’s lives in Scotland. Each and every day that happens and for most of our citizens, they are taken for granted. They just work, or most of the time.
“On one level it is a good thing because we strive to provide seamless, effective public services and we have been trying to do that as councils, on an individual level and collectively for many years. However, since 2009 we’ve been in a period where it is increasingly difficult to ensure that public services just work. Councils have lost [thousands of staff] in that period, charges for services have had to rise, demand for those services has grown. As Ronnie Hinds said in his conference address last year, we’ve all worked hard to do better with less. In general terms, I believe, so far, we have pulled it off. Public services in Scotland have rapidly developed new ways of working, new models of service delivery have been adopted and we are better at partnership working than we’ve ever been. Councils are now working more positively with government, with the private and voluntary sectors to deliver results for communities. Our employees continue to innovate and go the extra mile and most importantly of all, remain highly motivated to get public services to those who need them most.
“If we take advantage of the opportunities now offered by better community planning, if we continue to demonstrate excellent leadership, if we work honestly with communities and help politicians focus on real priorities like jobs, independent living, early years, and community health and wellbeing, then I firmly believe we will continue to succeed, no matter how difficult the financial circumstances ahead. This year’s SOLACE conference is an opportunity to share and reflect on what we do well, and perhaps just as importantly, to push and challenge ourselves to be even better.”
The conference focused on a number of themes, including the economy, improving community assets, public safety, health and early years issues. Keynote speakers included Local Government and Planning Minister Derek Mackay, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Sir Harry Burns and Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Baillie.
During each session, chief executives from across Scotland also spoke about the situations in their own councils and issued challenges and topics for further discussion.
Last year’s chairman and chief executive of Fife Council, Ronnie Hinds, spoke about community assets and community engagement.
He told the conference: “The big question is how do you move from the episodic to the systemic if you are talking about engagement of whole communities. When I asked myself what are we doing about making that transition, I found myself reading Christie’s report again. To try to make that transition, from the episodic, project-based interventions, to something more systemic, what we are trying to do in Fife is make community planning local. It is a journey we are all on. We do need some kind of vision for an area and we have to test that with the communities, it has to be theirs and not just ours as professionals.
“We found it helpful to have a small number of priority outcomes and we found it is important to keep that link with the strategic community plan and single outcome agreement but also to balance out something that is clearly pertinent and relevant at locality level. [With] our community engagement strategy, we are trying to build on the experience and lessons we have learned. It sounds obvious but often we come in to do something we call local community planning and we disregard everything we’ve done over the past two or three years as if there’s no value to it; you have to ensure you bring it in.” Derek Mackay said the Scottish Government wants to “renew and refresh” its relationship with local government and with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). He also praised all 32 councils for the smooth running of the recent local government elections, which he called “the story that never was”.
He added: “John Swinney and I have had a good start to our visits to councils and will visit every council in Scotland between us, just to renew [the] relationship and to hear local issues. There was significance in visiting Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, with a new partnership in administration there. Then, of course, Glasgow. If there was any relationship which showed a distance between a local council and the Scottish Government, it was Glasgow. But the meeting with the leader of the council and the chief executive was mutually successful and has reset the relationship between that city and this Scottish Government. That is how we want to operate going forward, renewing and refreshing our local services and our relationship. Councils have a mandate of five years and Scottish Government has a term of another four years to serve so there is a window of opportunity to take some of the party politics out and put some of the consensus building in.
“We don’t want to waste energy on boundary battles and unnecessary structural reviews. You’ll have seen Reform Scotland’s paper. We know we want councils to work with each other but I can announce that I’ve given a ministerial direction to the Boundary Commission that there will be no review of local government boundaries for the next five years. The reason we’re doing that is the Scottish Government has made it perfectly clear that we expect the response on the key pillars of reform, of preventative spend, integration, collaboration, improved performance and workforce development. That has to be delivered by you as public sector leaders and the deliverers of change so that is the quid pro quo for no structural change. We have to deliver within the structures we’ve got. We’ve put in the public domain that we are looking at putting community planning on a stronger statutory footing, requested by COSLA and others.
“We have shared values in many ways as a country and as public sector leaders as well. Take how we have handled the council tax benefit issue, thinking about who those decisions would affect first and foremost and working back from that to try and protect some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland by arriving at a decision that protects those people and then building the system that can deliver that kind of reform in mutual partnership. There is much more to do and we will require the support of UK Government to help design a system which protects the most vulnerable. It was around the shared value of protecting the most vulnerable in Scotland. That is the kind of partnership working we want to encourage.”