Local government is taking centre stage

Written by Kate Shannon on 15 March 2017 in Comment

Local government, ever the bridesmaid and never the bride with politicians at Holyrood and Westminster, is suddenly making headlines

Urban living: Picture credit - Fotolia

Local government, ever the bridesmaid and never the bride with politicians at Holyrood and Westminster, is suddenly making headlines. 

Obviously the looming council election is playing its part but the problems facing our overstretched local authorities are finally getting the attention they deserve. 

Just a couple of months ago, the SNP minority government’s budget nearly didn’t pass due to opposition parties objecting to, among other things, the money being allocated to councils.


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The resulting deal made with the Greens saw £160m of additional funding going to local government in the un-ringfenced core grant. There will also be £25m more for police reform and £35m for Scottish Enterprise.

Prime Minister Theresa May even used her recent Holyrood column to highlight what she thought was important regarding the upcoming election. Prior to the Scottish Conservative conference, she wrote: “My first Scottish conference since becoming Prime Minister comes at a significant time... looking forward to the local elections in May, when voters across Scotland will have the chance to send a clear message to the SNP that they do not want a second independence referendum by voting Scottish Conservative and Unionist on 4 May.”

And what of Labour? The party was first to publish its vision for local government back in January but is lagging behind in the polls and a throng of well respected veteran councillors – many of whom are currently council leaders – are standing down. The cynical among us would say they are jumping before they’re pushed but this does not faze leader Kezia Dugdale, who remains optimistic.

Speaking to Holyrood, she said: “The polls being bad for the Labour Party isn’t news, it’s been that way for some time now.

“The reality is that Labour councils are the last thing that stands between the SNP and Tory cuts and the people. There’s a strong message that our councillors and activists can take out around the country, that local government can be used as a barrier against the worst of austerity.”

However, despite the claim and counter claim, let’s hope that once the election results are announced, the debate about councils and how they provide their vital services remains on the agenda. 

For years, the Scottish Government has discussed devolving powers to councils and communities but with dwindling budgets and an ever-increasing demand for services, things are not getting easier for local authorities. This discussion goes back years, indeed, the 2011 Christie Commission report on the Future Delivery of Public Services was hailed as a seminal moment for

Scotland, with the late, great Dr Campbell Christie saying Scotland must implement reforms that “improve the quality of public services to better meet the needs of the people and the communities they seek to support”.

“Experience tells us that all institutions and structures resist change, especially radical change. However, the scale of the challenges ahead is such that a comprehensive public service reform process must now be initiated, involving all stakeholders,” he said.

Six years and many elections later, these words are as important as ever. How far we’ve come in that time and what still needs to be done remains a matter of debate but hopefully, with an influx of new politicians and a prominence at Holyrood and Westminster, local government might finally get the attention it so desperately needs

 

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