Cosla president Shona Morrison: 'There's no place for party politics'
Four months into the job, the new president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) has already survived her first major crisis after a dispute with council refuse workers saw Scotland’s streets awash with rubbish as overflowing bins went unemptied.
The pay dispute began shortly after Shona Morrison became the first SNP councillor elected to the nationwide body’s top political job, and saw strike action start in Edinburgh during the annual arts festivals and spread across 20 of the 32 local authorities she represents.
An initial 3.5 per cent pay offer – now superseded by a package worth 10 per cent – was described by union leaders as “derisory”. And Morrison’s own election to the Cosla presidency also provoked derision from some corners, with Scottish Conservative MSP Miles Briggs branding her an SNP “lackey” and the Scottish Liberal Democrats describing her elevation as akin to having “the fox in charge of the hen house”.
Going into what promises to be a difficult winter, and with the bin strikes over, the Moray councillor isn’t preoccupied with cleaning up her image. She’s too busy, she says, to pay attention to her critics. And anyway, she tells Holyrood, she’s used to the cut and thrust. “I got into politics by sitting on the parent council of my daughters’ school. Is there anything with more politics in it than that?”, she jokes.
“I’m fairly robust. My focus has to be on the job in hand. If I suspect there’s something awful on Twitter, I choose not to read it.
“I’ll be judged in a few years when hopefully there’s a legacy to challenge those assertions. I have a clear mandate to represent the 32 leaders of local authorities and that is what I am going to do.”
The 16th president of Cosla was elected in June, having secured more than 50 per cent of the vote. She came just four votes ahead of Labour rival Heather Brannan-McVey and significantly in front of incumbent Alison Evison, who received fewer than three per cent of the vote. Evison, of Aberdeenshire Council, had headed Cosla for five years, pressing the Scottish Government for more cash for local government, better remuneration for councillors and an end to the council tax freeze.
That wish came true last year, when Finance Secretary Kate Forbes announced councils would have full “flexibility” on setting local rates, a move that saw most – 22 – agree a rise of three per cent for 2022-23. Only two – East Renfrewshire and Falkirk – went above that, while others stayed below, after the Scottish Government announced an extra £120m for local authorities to avoid larger increases.
Evison was regarded as someone who was not hamstrung by party allegiance and could advocate on behalf of councils of all political persuasion to the SNP-Green Scottish Government without compromise. That, critics said on her election, is impossible for Morrison.
It’s a charge senior Cosla insiders are keen to dispel, pointing out that there was no pushback of this scale when previous Labour presidents were dealing with Labour administrations at Holyrood. “It’s my role to act as a conduit, there’s no place for party politics,” Morrison says. “I was elected president by leaders across the political parties, I have been given a clear mandate to represent them. That’s sometimes going to be on things the Scottish Government don’t want to hear.”
Is that how it was during bin strike talks? Morrison won’t be drawn. “We had the discussions we had to have,” she says. “We are now in a position where the priorities of communities are being made clear to the Scottish Government.”
Councils wanted “the very, very best deal we could possibly get” for their workforces, Morrison goes on. “I can only imagine the anxiety that’s causing people,” she says of the cost-of-living crisis. “We were focused on getting a solution.”
I have been given a clear mandate
The refuse strikes started in Edinburgh in early August as the annual festivals began. As rubbish piled up, non-teaching staff in schools and nurseries readied for strike action of their own and calls for Cosla and the Scottish Government to fix the problem grew.
The GMB, Unite and Unison unions had dismissed Cosla’s initial 3.5 per cent offer, pointing out that council workers in England had been offered a pay increase worth 10.5 per cent. The SNP would blame the Scottish offer on Conservative and Labour council leaders for voting that through, while STUC general secretary Roz Foyer accused the local, Scottish and UK authorities of “passing the buck round and round”.
As the month ended, Colin MacKay of STV trailed Morrison down the street. “You’re ignoring me as you’re ignoring the public as you’re ignoring the rubbish piling up,” he told her as she walked to further talks. “We’re not ignoring,” Morrison countered. “We’ve had a week of intensive meetings, my colleagues have been in meetings all week. We’ve had long days of discussions in our negotiation spaces.
“We absolutely recognise the pressure that local government are under, that the Scottish Government are under, and we’re here to seek solutions and look for a way forward.”
In the end, one was found; a flat rate fully consolidated offer of £2,000 for those earning up to £20,500, with a lower £1,925 flat rate for staff on £20,500-£39,000. The deal, reached after the First Minister became involved, is worth 10-11 per cent for the lowest paid workers, who are estimated to make up one in five of staff covered.
Unison Scotland’s head of local government, Johanna Baxter, said the “collective strength” of members “forced the Scottish Government to accept they had a role to play and come up with more money, but it should never have got to that”. Sharon Graham of Unite said strikers “should be congratulated for the brave stand they took”.
“If local government was given adequate funding and flexibility in the first place,” Cosla said in a statement afterwards, “the Scottish Government would not be required to intervene”. The “long-term reduction in funding settlements, the introduction of one year budget cycles and increasingly directed funding severely restricts the ability of councils, as employers, to offer and agree meaningful pay deals”, the body said, calling for Holyrood and Westminster to make change. That’s a key lesson, Morrison says, and also “impacts on our ability to be Fair Work employers and restricts our ambition to lead the way as a public sector exemplar”.
Morrison won’t say what happened behind the scenes, aside from that there was late-night pizza and noone was getting enough sleep. The Cosla team was looking at “as much recurring spending as we could” during pay negotiations, she says, and reached a “really good offer”. Part of the conversations with the DFM were “around directed spend – money that’s not ring-fenced for local authorities, but new policies come up from the Scottish Government and there’s a call for local authorities to implement them”.
“I feel like we have advanced that discussion significantly,” Morrison says of recent weeks. “What works in Moray doesn’t work, I think, in Edinburgh City. It’s around that flexibility, that’s a priority for us. We want to work in partnership, we want to coproduce, and that’s based on creating healthy, balanced relationships.”
Did conditions feel ‘healthy’ during the protracted pay talks? “There was lots of pressure within the situation; it was very visible,” Morrison says. “There was the biggest arts and culture festival in the world going on and it felt intense, but quite rightly so. It should feel like that. What I’m doing makes a huge difference in people’s lives.” And anyway, she says, she is “used to working at a pace where sometimes you don’t get as much sleep as you would like to”.
Prior to entering politics via that school parents’ council, Morrison was a mental health nurse. Born in Kintyre, she went to high school in Inverness and had a spell in Glasgow before heading for Aberdeen to train and finally settling in Moray, which she loves, with her engineer husband Simon. Their daughters Laurel and Rowan are respectively reading international relations and politics at Aberdeen University and taking National 5s. The girls benefited from a sense of community when they were younger, Morrison says, and it’s something she’s convinced is crucial for the development of “successful people”.
In her first term as Moray councillor for Fochabers Lhanbryde, Morrison was part of an SNP minority administration formed after a dispute over management and modernisation saw the Conservatives quit the coalition they’d created with independents. There was more drama in late 2021, when a Tory bid to retake control failed on a cut of cards. Things have hardly been quieter since this year’s elections, when despite gaining three seats and pushing the SNP out of administration, the Conservatives saw their convener Marc Macrae quit in the face of a vote of confidence.
It’s important not to lose... that sense of who you are and why you do the job
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Morrison, the former convener and civic head of Moray Council, feels she developed important diplomatic skills in the authority’s Elgin HQ. “I have been exposed at times to some really challenging circumstances in Moray,” she says.
“The previous five years had been fairly taxing. We worked really hard and I think we left Moray Council in a – I don’t want to sound bragging, but in quite a healthy state. As an administration of seven, we were fairly successful. I had multiple hats and was the integrated joint board chair and a non-executive director of NHS Grampian, and I was really privileged to have those roles. My decision to stand again was a long drawn out one – I’d been a convenor and a civic head, what else did I want to achieve? I still felt there was enough out there.
“I would always rather come into a new job where I’m fully exposed to the challenges within it,” she says of these difficult first few months at the top of Cosla. “There’s no point in wearing rose-tinted specs. I came in with eyes wide open and hit the ground running.”
It’s “the same job” as being a councillor, in a way, she says. “You are absolutely representing the same people with the same needs, the same values. All of that is reflected on a bigger level. It’s important not to lose that and that sense of who you are and why you do the job.
“My chief executive said, ‘always be you, that’s why you got voted in, never lose that sense of who you are’.”
Away from politics, Morrison is the enthusiastic owner of a Labrador, Nora, and is a huge Star Wars fan. She has the famous two suns of Tattooine inked on her forearm, along with the outline of the farm where Luke Skywalker was raised in secret. Her mum doesn’t know about the tattoo, she says, and tells Holyrood that attending the SNP conference meant missing out on Comic Con, where Obi-Wan Kenobi actor Ewan McGregor was billed to appear. She’s been studying the history of the Scottish witch trials and following the San Francisco Giants, her favourite baseball team. It’s a niche interest in Scotland, but one she shares with her Cosla vice-president, Steven Heddle, something they discovered when both of their phones pinged with sports alerts at the same time.
“Who knows” what the next challenges will be, she says, over and above the cost-of-living crisis, and “who saw the challenges of the last few years coming?
“Whatever they are, local government will be in the corner of the people within our communities and standing up for them and our sphere of government.”