A breath of fresh air: COSLA president Alison Evison
Holyrood sits down with new Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) president Alison Evison ahead of the organisation’s conference
Alison Evison: Picture credit - David Anderson
COSLA, Scotland’s longstanding local authority umbrella body, has had a turbulent couple of years. In 2015, four Labour councils, including Glasgow and Aberdeen City, decided to leave the organisation and go it alone, citing financial reasons. The four formed their own group and for a while COSLA had to endure speculation about its future.
Fast forward to autumn 2017 and the picture couldn’t be more different. COSLA has a new chief executive (former Argyll and Bute Council chief executive Sally Loudon was appointed in May 2016) and local government in Scotland in general has a host of newly elected members following the recent council elections.COSLA also has a new president, Aberdeenshire councillor Alison Evison, and within a month of her appointment, it welcomed all 32 councils back into the fold.
Speaking to Holyrood, Evison reiterated how vital this is for Scottish local government.
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She said: “It is so important we have a strong local government voice, so we are really pleased to welcome back everyone and we are now united across Scotland once again.
“That voice for local government is increasingly important to our communities and what that means for local democracy and accountability.”
For Evison, partnership working is key and while many in local government circles will say the same, she has actually lived it.
First elected to Aberdeenshire Council in 2012, Evison was one of only two Labour councillors in the local authority and for a time, she also served as co-leader with the SNP’s Richard Thomson.
It is this experience which she feels will stand her in good stead at COSLA.
“The years I had working in co-leadership were so important,” she said.
“Co-leadership is getting quite common now, but we were the first and we developed that model, it’s something Aberdeenshire has exported to the rest of Scotland.
“Having that ability to work in partnership is important in regards to other councillors in other groups, but it is also important across the public sector in Scotland as well. Being able to work together with different public sector bodies for the good of our communities is so important.
“That wider partnership, within COSLA but also across the public sector and other local government organisations in the rest of the UK and in Europe, I believe this is vital.”
Born in Gravesend in Kent, Evison was the eldest of three sisters. Her mother’s family was from Ireland and her father was, in her words, “a proud Dundonian” who had moved from Scotland to London in the 1960s. Both her parents worked in the public sector, her mother was a teacher and her father a civil servant, and both also undertook voluntary work.
After attending school in Gravesend, Evison studied history at Churchill College, Cambridge, before undertaking her PGCE at Birmingham University and then completing her year’s teaching practice in schools in Birmingham.
Evison worked as a teacher in Herefordshire before moving with her husband and baby daughter to Germany. While she was there she did a Masters in Education through the Open University.
She added: “We were in Germany for three years, we went when my eldest daughter was three weeks old and my second daughter was actually born in Germany.
“We had a brief period in the Middle East and then we moved back to the UK, where we had two more children born in Scotland – my father was very pleased that I had two children born in Montrose – then we returned to Germany for another three years.
“From an education point of view, my children have been educated in Scotland, but they also went to primary school in Germany and my eldest went to grammar school there. So as a parent, I had the experience of a different school set-up in a different country.”
With 25 years’ experience as a teacher in England, Germany and Scotland, education has always played a big role in Evison’s life and helped to shape her politics.
She said: “I actually first stood for election when I was nine years old in a class election. The person who stood against me in that election was Dave Moxham, who is now deputy general secretary of the STUC.
“I was quite interested in politics at that point but my interest then was linked to community, my sense of what’s important in a community and what was needed to drive a community forward.
“I don’t think I had any set views, apart [from] at that stage we had political discussions at home, but it was living in a community which shaped my views.
“It was a fun time aged nine to have an election experience.”
Holyrood asks whether she or Dave Moxham won the class election?
“I’m not going to tell you that!” she laughs.
She continued: “The town I was brought up in was very much a multicultural town. Gravesend has one of the highest Sikh populations in the UK and so a lot of my friends were from other religious and racial groups.
“We had a great time in my community, everyone got on with each other and worked with each other. When I was in early secondary school we had people from south London coming down and giving out leaflets at the school gates which were very right-wing extremist, trying to disrupt our harmony.
“I remember being very angry about that. I think that was maybe something which spurred me on [to a political life], not liking that kind of extreme right-wing politics threatening the peace of our community. This was the late 1970s, around the time of the Brixton riots.
“Another thing which I remember is a lot of my friends were from West Indian families and I noticed the amount of times they were stopped and searched by police. Again, this was the late 1970s so it was a totally different generation, but I remember thinking that it wasn’t fair and wondering why these people were being picked out. This definitely influenced my thinking at a very young age.
“Why did I become interested in politics? It was an interest in community, a sense of fairness and justice and community harmony, building communities together and working together for the good of the community.”
Evison was heavily involved in the 2011 Scottish Parliament campaign and joined the Labour Party that year.
“Education was a key thing for me and I wanted to ensure that we did the right thing to support our young people and in particular for vulnerable young people,” she continued.
“Those issues inspired me to play an active part in the 2011 election as a campaigner and at that point, I joined the party.
“A year later I became a councillor. I was actually the first Labour councillor in Aberdeenshire in 2012. I had a full-time job as a teacher and there were times I was sitting in the staffroom and thinking that I didn’t like some of the things we were doing.
“Then I started to think, ‘do I sit and think about the things I don’t like or do I try and do something about it?’
“That was the real spur to standing. It was a big gamble for me, I gave up a permanent teaching post at a time when they weren’t employing permanent teachers. I took a huge risk in leaving my job so I could campaign from January to May to get elected, bearing in mind there were no Labour councillors in Aberdeenshire.
“I was elected as the first-ever Labour councillor in Aberdeenshire and there ended up being two of us in the Labour group in 2012.
“We didn’t inherit anything when we started, we had nothing. We had no history in that sense in Aberdeenshire and we were able to form our own way of working.
“What mattered to us was our Labour vision, our social justice and fairness, we were able to develop this as we wished and have total democracy in what we were doing.”
Evison said it was a “huge honour” to be nominated to be COSLA president by the Labour group and then to be elected earlier this year.
She said: “I’m from the north east of Scotland and [this] shows that COSLA represents councils across Scotland. It’s really important to show we don’t have a bias to particular areas and that the geographical mix is there.
“The other important message is that obviously I’m female and I’m only the third ever female COSLA president.
“Getting that message out is really important to highlight women’s roles and to do all we can to increase female representation. The geographical mix and the gender issues are both really important.
“We can do far more in councils to promote diversity, and not just in gender terms, so that all parts of Scottish society are represented. It’s a long haul to change the mix of people who choose to stand as candidates so we need to start now to do what we can to broaden the candidate base so people will want to put themselves forward to stand.
“I took a huge gamble in 2012 to do it I was lucky I was able to do it, but it shouldn’t be only available to people who are able, it should be open to everyone who wants to be a councillor.
“In 2012 my youngest daughter moved from primary to secondary school and there was no way I could have done this job with primary school-age children; the work involved as a councillor is huge.
“That’s not right either, you are gearing it away from so many people. We have to think about the way the whole structure is organised, why did I feel I had to wait until that point?
“You can’t address this a few months before an election, it’s a cultural change which takes time. We have to work towards getting a more diverse range of candidates standing but we have to start that work now.”
Rounding up the interview looking at the issues facing COSLA in the coming months and years, Evison returns to the importance of partnership working for COSLA and for Scottish local government as a whole.
She said: “We are working together for public services as well to make sure services are delivered to our communities. Within that we’ve got particular themes coming forward, for example, education, which is still so important to me, as well as the financing of public services and ensuring the money is there to deliver the services our communities need.
“The community planning feel is really important too and local government playing its role locally is vital.
“COSLA needs to have a relevant voice in Scottish society. Local government is so important – we need to raise its profile, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
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