Anas Sarwar and Andy Burnham vow to foster cross-border council collaboration
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Greater Manchester’s Labour mayor Andy Burnham have pledged to encourage cross-border co-operation between council leaders as part of a plan to hand greater control to local authorities.
Scottish Labour today unveiled a paper detailing how it would reform local government so individual authorities had greater powers to determine how the funding they receive from the Scottish Government is spent.
Speaking at a launch event in Glasgow, Sarwar said the aim is to empower councils to make decisions that work best for their particular area, including electing a “local champion” in a role such as mayor, noting that the vision is to have “more Andy Burnhams” in place.
Burnham has been a high-profile champion of the north of England since taking office in 2017, with much of his focus being on delivering an integrated and affordable public transport system across the Greater Manchester area.
Last month, Burnham said in a wide-ranging interview with Holyrood that Scotland is “missing a trick” by not having elected mayors who could push for similar changes in their specific areas and collaborate with counterparts across the country.
If Scotland did have mayors, he said, he could imagine Glasgow being asked to join a partnership recently agreed between the mayors of Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin that is focused on improving business and investment links and sharing ideas on how best to approach the transition to net zero.
Speaking in Glasgow today, Burnham said giving Scottish local authorities greater powers would enable that kind of collaboration, which would be mutually beneficial.
“The five biggest northern cities should meet with the five biggest Scottish cities,” he said. “The politics of the last 10 years has stopped us coming together but I’m here because I’m determined to change that.”
Noting that Greater Manchester has been “pioneering a new form of devolution from the bottom up” since the mayoral post was created in 2017, Burnham said the city is now “moving on and moving forward”. In particular, he pointed to how his office has recently negotiated a price cap on bus fares across the area, with the entire regional bus service due to come under public control next year.
He added that, if they had greater autonomy, Scottish local authorities could learn from that and do something similar.
“We do need to talk more,” he said. “The north of England needs to talk more to Scotland so we can collaborate and learn from each other as we go through this [cost-of-living] crisis. It’s the biggest crisis we’ve ever seen.
“I was in Fife with [former Labour Prime Minister] Gordon Brown yesterday looking at an amazing project. They’ve said you have to move beyond food banks and he’s created a life bank where families can get all kinds of support. We’re going to do that in Manchester – I’ve learned that from here.”
To enable this to happen Scottish Labour is arguing for a Barnett-style funding formula so local authorities receive a predictable and set proportion of the Scottish budget each year.
This would be created independently, for example through a new local government commission or through the Scottish Fiscal Commission, and would be reviewed every three years.
Sarwar said the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing strikes among public sector workers have underlined the importance of local authority devolution.
While cities such as Edinburgh are currently being impacted by strike action from refuse workers, Sarwar noted that Edinburgh City Council has no powers to bring that to a halt because the pay deal the workers have walked out over is being negotiated nationally by council umbrella group Cosla.
“If you look at what’s happening with the cost-of-living crisis, this is a national emergency that I would put on the same scale as the Covid pandemic,” he said.
“Every layer of government needs to do everything they can [to respond] and if you empower local government it allows local government to take decisions and empowers local organisations as well.”