School of thought

Written by Kate Shannon on 29 October 2014 in Interviews

COSLA’s education, children and young people spokesman, Douglas Chapman, on the challenges ahead

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) has a tough job. It not only has the unenviable task of getting notoriously quarrelsome local authorities to unite on different issues, but it also has to deal with conflicting political views from its councillors. However, when it comes to issues around child poverty and ensuring the best for Scotland’s children, everyone is in agreement.

For the organisation’s education, children and young people spokesman, child poverty is top of the agenda. A veteran councillor in Fife, Douglas Chapman has been in the role since 2012. Sitting down with Holyrood in COSLA’s headquarters in Edinburgh, he is clear that reducing child poverty is one of the most important tasks for all local authorities. 
He said: “Child poverty is top of everyone’s agenda and it was one of the things which struck a chord with me early on in my political career. I remember going to a meeting where a young Alex Neil was speaking and he raised the issue. It came as a blow out of the blue that the levels of child poverty in Scotland were so unacceptable. This was one of the main drivers for me to become involved in politics. 

“Recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put out figures which showed a breakdown in each of the local authority areas in Scotland. There are areas of Glasgow and other places which are dealing with second, third-generation unemployment, a sheer poverty of ambition in people’s lives. We have to ask, how do you start to change that? I think we’ve got the will to change but have we got the powers and the resource in Scotland to start to do something serious about it? 

“There are three things I’m working on in COSLA at the moment. I am closely involved in the Wood Commission in terms of getting young people into employment and training, that’s part of my professional background as well. Another aspect is the early years agenda and COSLA is a key partner in the Early Years Collaborative. Thirdly, we’re look at what we’re doing with the government in terms of attainment in schools. These are the three big rocks in the pool that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds at all times. While some of these are related to education, some to employment and the lives of children but they are all feeding into the same end result, which should be reducing poverty among young people and families.” 

As an SNP councillor, Chapman believes it is a lot harder to achieve this when Scotland doesn’t have full control over aspects like the benefits system. “Measures can be brought into play to give you a total package that help you deal with the problem, instead of doing it in a piecemeal fashion as we have to do at the moment,” he said.
In the past COSLA has had issues working with the Scottish Government and while this has improved significantly since the historic Concordat was signed in 2007, what is it like to work with central government to achieve some of the goals which are vital to councils?

Chapman said: “From a personal point of view, the relationship is very positive. I have to go and make the case for Scottish local government and do that to the best of my ability. I am well supported within COSLA by the officers we have here but also, there’re the political complexities we have within COSLA itself. In saying that, when it comes to things like education, child poverty and early years, there’s not one council leader in the country who wouldn’t want to see us make greater progress on all these issues. Sometimes we have discussions – sometimes heated discussions – about how you best go about that and that is to be expected. Each party has its own ideas about how to solve problems. However, in terms of commitment, and to use a popular phrase, there’s not a fag paper between a lot of the council leaders in Scotland about what they want to achieve.

“At the same time, the relationship we have with government is crucial to making sure that local authorities can get on with what they are really good at, and that the government can follow some of the things they’ve promoted as their overall national policies. Sometimes there’s a tension there, I’m always working to get a win-win in any negotiations so that people come away from the table feeling that they have not been skewered or they’ve not been disadvantaged and that everyone can come away thinking they got something out of the discussions. I think that’s a good way to work and to date we’ve not had any serious enough issues for everyone to fall out about.”  

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