Local Government Minister Kevin Stewart: Challenges and opportunities

Written by Minister for Local Government & Housing Kevin Stewart on 5 October 2017 in Comment

Kevin Stewart on the key to achieving improved services and outcomes in local government

Kevin Stewart: Picture credit - Scottish Government 

In May this year, people across Scotland went to the polls to elect their local councillors. Whether they have been re-elected or elected for the first time, these councillors will play an important role in the delivery of important services and crucially in the representation of their constituents. As we move forward I want to see local government playing an ever more important role, not just in the “nuts and bolts” of services like planning and housing, but also in supporting the development of truly empowered communities.


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For me, the key to achieving improved services and outcomes in local government is to improve collaboration. Whether it is working together through health and social care integration, community planning partnerships or simply across layers of government. It is vital to understand that issues can rarely be dealt with in isolation but instead must be looked at in a wider context. 

Scotland’s economy depends on a planning system that is fit for purpose.  It shapes our communities and has the potential to transform lives when it is done well.

The Scottish Government’s consultation on a new Planning Bill received a tremendous response with hundreds of submissions from a wide cross-section of society. It has also given us the opportunity to improve the way that public services work together.

Our proposals aim to simplify the landscape of development plans, whilst also improving collaboration between national and local government.  Planning must be an integral part of emerging regional partnership working.  

Alongside this, community empowerment remains a key Government priority – it is essential that we strengthen public trust in the planning system.  We are proposing that communities are given a right to plan their own place and for those proposals to form part of the local development plan.  This will help to develop fuller and more constructive involvement in the planning system.   

We want planning to focus on delivering great places.  A streamlined system, with less procedure and a greater focus on outcomes, will help to achieve this. We have worked extensively with stakeholders throughout the review of the planning system and I look forward to continuing to work together as we move towards a Planning Bill this winter.

We have a desire to put people and communities at the heart of the decisions that affect them. This has been a key element of the Community Empowerment Act, which is already helping to empower community bodies through the ownership of land and buildings and strengthen their voices in the decisions that matter to them. 

We know communities can do great things when empowered to achieve their own goals so it was essential to put in place a legal framework that would help and not hinder this. The processes established and improved in the Act – community planning, participation requests, community right to buy and asset transfer requests – have at their heart the idea of participation and empowerment. Enabling communities to set the agenda in line with their own wishes and concerns.

Another aspect of this has been the development of our Community Choices programme. This provides a way for local people to have a direct say in how and where public funds are used to address local needs. This is a massive opportunity not just to ensure that decisions are better made but to ensure that people feel ownership of those decisions. 

In the last two years we have invested over £4m across Scotland in projects where local people have decided on how local funds should be spent. We also want to go further. We are working with local government to have one per cent of council budgets being decided upon through community choices. That means that tens of thousands of people will have a say in how tens of millions of pounds are spent by their councils. We are determined to give people a real voice in the decisions that matter to them.

One of the key aspects to creating strong communities is to provide good quality housing. Everyone in Scotland should have a safe and warm place to call home, and access to quality housing is a vital part of our drive to secure economic growth and strengthen communities.  Through our More Homes Scotland approach, we are supporting local authorities to deliver their housing priorities, with quality homes that fit local needs. 

This year, all 32 councils are sharing £422m to deliver more affordable homes in their local communities and, for the first time, we have committed to year-on-year increases in funding for affordable homes.  We have allocated more than £1.75bn to councils across Scotland over the next three years, providing the certainty needed to deliver our ambitious 50,000 affordable homes target by March 2021.

Tackling homelessness is a vital part of making sure everyone has a home.  In Scotland, we already have world-leading housing rights to respond to homelessness whenever it occurs.  But for some people, who may have more complex needs, addressing homelessness can be about more than the provision of housing. That is why we have announced the creation of a short term

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group to address these issues and a £50m Ending Homelessness Fund over five years. We also work with local government and their partners to develop the housing options approach - preventative action that can address housing problems and potential homelessness, by addressing the causes of housing pressures and any related issues. Again, collaboration is the key to achieving successful outcomes.

In launching the Programme for Government at the beginning of September, the First Minister clearly set out this government’s desire to “tackle the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves in the 21st century”. 

The way in which people access local services is changing as are people’s expectations and desire to be more involved in the decisions that impact them. This presents a challenge to local government, but also an opportunity to ensure that the structures are right to meet changing demands. That is why the reform of Scotland’s public service continues to be a key strategic priority for the Scottish Government, 

In the Programme for Government, we set out our plans to launch a comprehensive review of local governance ahead of a Local Democracy Bill later this parliament.  These plans mark out an important moment in time to further reform the way Scotland is governed.  By bringing together the different spheres of government, wider public service partners and communities themselves we will reconfigure powers, functions and ways of working to better deliver outcomes, in line with local circumstances. 

We are by no means at a standing start. The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy made an important contribution to the debate on the future of local democracy in Scotland. The Community Empowerment Act, Islands Bill and City Deals demonstrate our strong track record on empowering communities – large and small.  And there are many great examples of place-based approaches to public service design and delivery to be found the length and breadth of the country.  The review and subsequent Bill will go further in devolving power to more local levels, fundamentally transforming the relationship between people and their public services.  When the work begins later this year I encourage everyone with an interest to get involved. 

At the beginning of this article I talked about the importance of collaboration - in improving the way that local government works and improving outcomes for communities. I believe that when public services and communities work together they can help to create a Scotland that is fairer and more prosperous. I believe that the role of central government is to support this process and to create the right conditions for collaboration.  This could be by creating a planning system that is more responsive to local needs, or by providing funding so that local authorities can focus on building good quality homes or by looking more strategically at local governance to identify better ways of working. We are living in difficult and challenging times but by working together we can achieve more than by working alone. As the First Minister said in the Programme for Government: “In each of these challenges, we will find opportunities. It is our job to seize them.” 

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