Power (closer) to the people: COSLA president Alison Evison on the status of local government
Back in September COSLA published its Blueprint for Scottish Local Government, which sets out what COSLA considers to be the purpose and function of local government in Scotland today and the future role for local government going forward.
This includes, of course, a call for more powers for councils and recognition of their independent democratic role.
Among the keys asks is a fiscal framework agreement with the Scottish Government that includes multi-year budgets, a removal of the cap on council tax and more powers for discretionary local taxation.
Calls for more powers for local government in Scotland are nothing new and seem largely to have fallen on deaf ears, but COSLA is hopeful that after banging the drum on this for many years, we could now be close to a turning point.
A member’s bill by Green MSP Andy Wightman is going through parliament that, if passed, would give the role of councils legal status in Scotland and embed the Charter for European Self-Government in Scots law.
But given there have been multiple reviews of local government powers over recent years – the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, the Commission on Local Tax Reform, the Local Governance Review – does COSLA believe they're actually going to get results anytime soon?
“There has been a series of moves towards this,” COSLA president Alison Evison tells Holyrood.
“And I think at the moment now, maybe we're at that cusp of being able to do something, with Andy Wightman's bill, with the Charter for European Self-Government Bill at the moment going through parliament, because that will really give us the opportunity of strengthening the status and standing of local government if we incorporate that in law.
“It will place a duty on ministers to pay attention to local government, local democracy when passing laws within the parliament.
“And it will also allow for a more equal relationship between the Scottish Government and local government, which can only be for the good of our communities, for allowing that local choice to come more to the fore.
“So at the moment, we are have this opportunity to make a difference.
“As you say, we've had lots of reviews beforehand, there's been a consistent line throughout those reviews, but now we've got an opportunity to actually do something and we're so close to getting that bill through parliament at the moment.”
Devolving more power to a local level is sometimes referred to as the unfinished business of devolution and Evison says she thinks “we are at a stage now when it's within our grasp.”
She doesn’t know yet whether the Scottish Government will back Wightman’s bill, but she is hopeful.
“We don't know yet whether they will support it or not. But in terms of the outcomes we want to reach across Scotland, it's very much in terms of meeting outcomes that we know the Scottish Government also has.
“We've seen in the pandemic, the importance of communities having a voice in decision-making.
“We've seen what can happen when communities and local government work together in an area and where there is funding for the outcomes we've all agreed.
“We've seen that the huge benefits that can come from this.
“So I would hope Scottish Government reflecting would say, yes, we need to give more powers to local government because we need that voice for our communities through local government so we can achieve those aspirations that we set in practice in the National Performance Framework.”
Part of this is about giving more say to local communities and ensuring decisions are right for local circumstances, but a key aspect is who has control of the purse strings.
There is currently a highly centralised form of funding for local government from central government, often ringfenced for specific purposes, with strict controls over how and how much councils can raise themselves.
This has been an ongoing issue, with council funding from the Scottish Government having being cut since 2013-14, but the pandemic has cause even more of a hit on local government finance.
COSLA had previously estimated a shortfall of £500m this year, but the Scottish Government has since announced a funding package, so are they out of the woods now?
“Obviously, local government has carried on delivering essential services to our communities while also doing what we needed to do during COVID to support our local communities as well, and that whole process has put extreme pressure on local government finances,” Evison says.
“And you mentioned centralisation earlier. You know, while local government doesn't have freedom to decide its own finances, that centralisation does exist and we don't have the local democracy we actually want either.
“And this particular year has made us struggle even more. Huge losses of income to local councils as many of the things we had as income raising before, you know, sports and leisure, for example.
“Obviously, that hasn't happened this year, and so we've had huge pressure on our finance.
“And the money, yes, we have worked with the Scottish Government and we have worked constructively to reach a situation where money is coming from the Scottish Government as a substantial package of measures to help in the current situation we work in.
“But that money is not additional in many ways; it's to do with looking at the way a council are repaying debt; it's looking at repurposing money; it's looking at delaying expenditure, rather than actually being new money.
“And with all this, we are still facing, the current figure is a £400 million loss in income this year.
“And that's a huge amount of money which will have to be found by local government doing things differently, stopping services, stopping things that up till now have been considered essential to our communities.
“You know, we can't do things before that local government's always done and every time we stop something like that someone suffers, because local government is there delivering services that are essential to people within our communities.
“So, changing those means that someone is suffering. And obviously, the whole purpose of local government is to deliver services to our local communities.”
One of the biggest areas that local government is responsible for is social care and it has been reported that at least 19 of the country's health and social care partnerships have cut social care services this year, so is that a way of saving money or just an indication of the state of things?
Evison is adamant that it is not about making savings, but rather the practical impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with contingency arrangements having to be put in place and social care staff themselves being affected.
“I would refute very strongly that any council has been making changes to save money on what they're doing,” she says.
“This is really important to every council, that social care is provided, that vulnerable people across our communities are supported in every way.
“Councils need to be funded fairly so we have those resources in place to be able to deliver on that priority, but it remains a priority for local government.
“And with the funding in place and with the personnel in place to deliver it, local government will deliver.
“It's not seen as saving money to change things.
“During the pandemic, things have maybe been done differently because of the unique circumstances we have been in during the pandemic, but the priority of local government for health and social care has been there and will continue to be there.”
While social care is associated with councils, Brexit and the future UK internal market much less so, but they are in fact as much areas of concern for local government as national government.
Evison points out that a lot of the services that could be affected by changes to the UK internal market are delivered by local government.
“Brexit and the future is a key issue for local government as well. You know, a lot of the services delivered obviously involve local government.
“We are responsible for a lot of services in terms of health, education, economic development, and the Internal Market Bill talks about all those things.
“And it talks about exceptions in the principles of mutual recognition for areas like that, but we need to make sure that local government has a voice, because at the moment, it's not clear what's going to happen in the future.
“But what is clear is that local government is centrally involved in delivering health and social care, in education, in economic development across Scotland, so our voice within decision-making going forward is crucial.”
State aid and the Shared Prosperity Fund, which is to replace EU structural funds after Brexit, are other areas where they have concerns.
Just like Scottish Government and the UK Government, local authorities are subsidy-giving authorities within Scotland in terms of state aid, Evison points out.
And with regards to the Shared Prosperity Fund, it is not clear how money will be distributed.
On the latter, Evison says: “From our point of view, it's really important that any money coming to Scotland is defined according to Scottish-agreed priorities, that they have a strong local dimension, like money's always had in the past, that we have a voice in how the money comes and how it can be spent locally.
“So, we are again arguing for that voice so we can continue cooperating with the UK Government, with the Scottish Government to make sure that local priorities are actually addressed within Scotland. And at the moment that's not clear either, whether we will have that local voice.”
It’s also not clear how they would be able to carry on taking part in Interreg Europe, which helps regional and local governments across Europe to develop and deliver better policy, but COSLA is continuing to push for a role in all these areas.
“We want to increase that voice for our communities rather than take anything away, and the Internal Market Bill at the moment doesn't give us that security that we will have a voice for our local communities across Scotland and the people that live within them,” Evison says.
“We've also heard lots of talk about the common frameworks that will be developed, all the EU returned powers coming to the UK and the role that the Scottish Government might have in these as well.
“Councils have always had an important part to play in procurement.
“Trading standards is work carried out by councils, waste, air quality and coastal economic development, these are all things that are key to the work of our local councils across Scotland, so we need to ensure that we are also consulted about how these common frameworks come back to the UK, how these common frameworks are developed and the role that we have going forward.”
While the Scottish Government shares many of their views on this, Evison says, she notes that they also need to make sure there is full consultation for local government in the Scottish Government’s EU Continuity Bill too.
“So far, the continuity bill includes a consultation duty for environmental matters, which is a key aspect of local government's work, but we also need to make sure we have a full voice in terms of the continuity bill, and obviously are talking to the Scottish Government about that as well,” says Evison.
There is, says, Evison “an awful lot” that local government is involved in and it’s clear it will to try its utmost to have that “full voice” heard on all of it.