A new vision
A year into the presidential role and no one can accuse O’Neill of sitting idle. With a new vision for local government shaping the way the organisation works and a firm stance on controversial subjects such as welfare reform, O’Neill and his team are working hard to make their mark.
Speaking to Holyrood, he believes the past year has been busy and demanding. “This is a particularly challenging time for local government for a number of different reasons,” he said.
“We are aware of the demographic changes which are taking place and at the same time as that, we see the reductions in the finances that are coming our way.
“What we’re facing now is an actual reduction in cash, that’s a first. Even if you go back to the Thatcher days when there was much griping and grumbling about the amount of money we had, it wasn’t an actual reduction. It is also an interesting and challenging time because we’ve the referendum coming up next September. We are taking advantage of that fact to engage in a debate and discussion about the future role of local government and where it sits in the governance of Scotland.
“We are also looking at substantial legislative changes coming through the Scottish Parliament, regarding health and social care integration, for example. It’s about how we work in partnership with the Scottish Government to deliver that. It is a joint agenda, largely driven through the recognition that we need to do things differently and we need to intervene at an early stage and deal with prevention rather than a problem once it has arisen.”
The new outlook for local government was launched by O’Neill at the organisation’s conference in February. He described it as a way forward, allowing COSLA to deal with the reality of today’s problems, to be sustainable in the medium term and provide the basis for an even more expansive and important future. He added that the vision is based on the principles of the Christie Commission – doing things with communities, not to them; doing things in partnership; creating a situation where our institutions in Scotland are so confident of the way they are underpinned and supported that working across agency boundaries becomes easier not harder.
He said: “My view of our future is one where local government exists not at the whim of some higher authority, not in a situation where the very existence, structures and services of local government can be removed, enhanced or changed just because a higher level of government wishes it to be so. Scotland post the referendum should not have higher and lower levels of government, one of which has the ability to rule the roost over the other. We should have, as we have always said, not tiers but spheres of government and the existence of either should not be at the behest of anybody else.”
We are also looking at substantial legislative changes coming through the Scottish Parliament, regarding health and social care integration
O’Neill said irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, Scotland will be a different place post-2014. He added: “We either get a Yes vote, which I personally don’t want, but if we do, we will have a different constitutional arrangement in Scotland. If we get a No vote, I think everyone expects that there will be further devolution taking place. I see some of that devolution, in either outcome, being not just devolution to Holyrood but additional devolution to Scottish local government and indeed beyond. Local government tends to have the view that devolution shouldn’t stop at Edinburgh but neither should it stop at the council chamber.”
A recent critical report from the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee said many councils are resistant to change and that “patchy progress” has been made on reforming public services.
O’Neill said: “It was a very disappointing report, the evidence we gave was not reflected in any way within the report and the conclusions they reached were entirely the opposite of what the evidence was indicating. I’m bemused at how they reached the conclusions they did. I’ve been a councillor for a long time, I was first elected in 1980 but the reason I’m not bored is because there is change within local government. Change is constant. Someone who stood down in 2007, coming into local government today would not recognise it because of the amount of change which has taken place. If you go back to every previous election before that, the same can be said. Change is fairly constant and not only is it constant but it is embraced by local government because if you don’t embrace change, it will wash you away.
“The principles of Christie have been accepted not only across the political divide but also across the different sectors within public services. There is a recognition that if you are spending 40 to 45 per cent of all public monies on dealing with problems, after they’ve happened, rather than preventing them from happening in the first place, that’s not a good use of public money. Even without the credit crunch and the tight financial problems we have, there is a recognition that prevention is better than spending on resolution of problems once they’ve occurred.”
A survey of councils was carried out by COSLA to mark the first 100 days since new under-occupancy rules were implemented.
Under-occupancy changes made under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which came into effect on 1 April, reduce housing benefit by 14 per cent for those with one extra bedroom and by 25 per cent for those with two extra bedrooms. These changes apply to council tenants and tenants of registered social landlords. COSLA found the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ was already leading to sharp rises in rent arrears. Of rent now due to be collected from tenants affected, 60 per cent of councils reported receiving 40 per cent or less and 80 per cent of councils reported receiving 50 per cent or less. The results are based on responses from 20 of the 26 councils with their own housing stock.
Commenting on the figures, O’Neill said it was important to note that COSLA recognises the need for change in the way welfare is delivered in the UK.
He said: “Particularly in the south-east of England, the public purse is seen by some private landlords as their own personal cash machine, they keep bumping the rents up and they’re letting properties which aren’t fit for human habitation. That is a problem which is concentrated in the south-east of England. The other part of the issue is that the welfare and benefit system is an extremely complex system, and it is desirable that it is simplified.
“Legislation in Scotland is quite different from England and the problems in different parts of England are varied as well. They seem to be taking a south-east of England issue and imposing a UK-wide solution to it. We said at the time that it would not work in Scotland because of the different legislation, in particular, the homeless legislation. Our survey of the first 100 days has sadly proved us right, it would have been nice if we’d been wrong and everything was going to be hunky dory but it isn’t.
“I recognise the alleged popularity of welfare reform with the public because the UK Government have been very good at typifying it as ‘strivers and skivers’ and saying, ‘why should the people who are out working be subsidising those who refuse to work’. In actual fact, the majority of people who are on welfare are out working but because the UK has got a low-wage economy, you can be working very hard but still earning a very low wage and you require welfare to give you enough money to have a decent standard of living. A real change to welfare would be to provide quality jobs, which pay a reasonable wage and then folk wouldn’t need welfare.
“We now have a government who are intent on reducing the welfare bill and it would seem to me that some of the things they are doing will not help the situation. Council housing in Scotland is funded entirely from rents, so if your rental income goes down, you’ve got less money to spend on housing services, less to spend on your housing stock and you are therefore less able to invest in your housing stock, you are less able to get involved in new builds, so the more that is lost through rental impact, the bigger the negative impact that is going to have, not just on benefit but everyone who lives in a socially rented house, council or housing association.”